Garland County’s COVID-19 statistics for the week of Aug. 15-22 show slight improvements, yet the amount of virus in the community remains high, as does vaccine skepticism and the divisiveness regarding face masks.
“It’s good that our numbers are coming down, but if we look back to where we were a year ago, we had 166 active cases. So we are down, but we still have 868 active cases, which is more than five times as many cases as this time last year, and our hospitals continue to have a lot of COVID patients and deaths,” said Gene Shelby, the county’s health officer, at the Aug. 23 meeting of the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force.
In his weekly COVID statistic report, Shelby noted that the 868 active cases as of Monday morning is down 127 from the previous week’s 995. This is the first weekly decline in active cases since June 13, when it dropped from 56 to 45. There were 598 new cases reported last week for an average of 85.4 new cases a day, down from a total of 618 new cases and an average of 99 per day from the previous week. The positivity rate also dropped slightly from 20.7% the previous two weeks to 18.4% last week. There were 15 deaths reported last week, which is by far the highest weekly COVID death total Garland County has experienced in several months.
Area hospitals – CHI St. Vincent (CHI) and National Park Medical Center (NPMC) – reported to the task force a current COVID patient count of 85, a decrease from the previous Monday’s total of 98 patients and the total two weeks ago of 110. The total number of ICU patients with COVID remained at 29 this week from last week. At CHI, 14 of their 20 COVID patients in intensive care require the use of ventilation. NPMC reported that of their nine ICU patients, none were fully vaccinated. The hospitals reported a total of 14 COVID deaths last week. A CHI representative said that last Friday, Aug. 20, was one of their highest admission days for COVID patients.
Shelby said that although COVID vaccine booster shots are now available for those who are immunocompromised and should be available for the general public in late September, that the priority should continue to be to encouraging anyone who has yet to get the first or second dose of the vaccines to do so as soon as possible. He noted only a slight increase in the county’s vaccination rate, from 33% of the population last week to 34% this week.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for those 16 and older on Aug. 23, superseding its previous emergency use authorization. The Pfizer vaccine is still available for those 12-15 under the emergency use authorization, along with the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, both for those 18 and older.
“While this and other vaccines have met the FDA’s rigorous, scientific standards for emergency use authorization, as the first FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D., in a release issued by the FDA. To see the full release, visit https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-approves-first-covid-19-vaccine.
Shelby hopes this approval will convince more individuals to get vaccinated, along with the growing amount of data supporting the reduced risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID for those who are fully vaccinated. For more information and locations to receive the COVID vaccines in Garland County, visit www.cityhs.net/vaccine.
Monoclonal antibody treatment continues to be promoted to help alleviate the burden on the hospital systems. It is being offered by both area hospitals to members of the community referred by a physician. Cody Turner, pharmacist at Village Health Mart East Gate Pharmacy who is helping coordinate and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, said their pharmacy has also begun to offer the infusion treatment. The administration of monoclonal antibodies has been effective at helping keep high-risk patients from developing severe cases of COVID that would require hospitalization. It is now being given to high-risk patients as a preventative measure if they have been exposed to the virus, meaning a positive test result is no longer required. A representative from an area nursing home shared that two of their residents with COVID were given the treatment, and it eliminated their symptoms and had them feeling “better than they did before they got COVID.”
Of the seven area school districts represented in the meeting, a total of 79 active COVID cases among students were reported, along with 13 cases among staff. Although some districts that enacted mask mandates have received pushback, they credit the dramatic drop in the number of required quarantines to the mask requirements in their schools. If all students and staff are wearing face masks at the time of exposure to an individual with COVID-19, only the student or staff who tested positive for the virus is required to quarantine for the 10-14-day period. The Hot Springs School District reported 14 students and nine staff with COVID, but at the time of the meeting had not had to quarantine any additional students or staff thanks to their mask mandate. Lake Hamilton has 65 students in quarantine, which are mostly due to community- rather than school-related exposure. Their district also has a mask mandate and is tracking how many would have had to be in quarantine if the mandate were not in place – it would be more than double the number it is currently. Districts without a mask mandate shared that although they continue to strongly encourage the use of face masks, few on their campuses are wearing them.
National Park College is offering students a $100 incentive for getting vaccinated, and they gave out more the $6,500 at their final move-in day on Saturday. They had seven active cases at the time of the meeting, and are hopeful their low quarantine numbers continue into their first week of classes this week.
The Garland County Health Unit is administering the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine for ages 18 and older, with no appointment needed. The health unit also has available the state’s vaccination incentives – a $20 Arkansas Scholarship Lottery scratch-off ticket or an Arkansas Game and Fish license certificate – for anyone 18 and older who brings their COVID vaccination card to show their last shot was received after May 25.
The health unit tested 64 individuals for COVID last week. Those wanting a COVID test must park their vehicle in a parking space reserved by a numbered cone, stay inside their vehicle and call 501-624-3394 to inform the representatives which number is indicated on the cone. They continue to offer their full range of health services inside their facility. Along with requiring a face mask to enter, the health unit also has a machine that takes people’s temperatures. Those with elevated temperatures are not allowed to enter. As outdoor temperatures continue to be high, individuals may have to wait, masked, in the foyer area to cool in order to get an accurate body temperature reading. The health unit is located at 1425 Malvern Avenue and is open from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday – Friday, and from 9:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Tuesday.
The United Way of the Ouachitas has an online application for COVID-19 assistance for area families and individuals affected by the pandemic at https://www.unitedwayouachitas.org/covid-19-application. To donate to the COVID-19 Relief Fund, visit www.bit.ly/UWO-COVID, call 501-623-2505 or send a check by mail at 233 Hobson Avenue, Hot Springs, AR 71913.