Even though the COVID-19 case numbers for Garland County continued to decline for the week of Aug. 22 – 29, the highly contagious delta variant is posing new challenges to school districts and has led to the county’s highest weekly COVID death total to date.
Hot Springs School District Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Nehus said during the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force meeting on Monday, Aug. 30, that last week was “a really hard week” because they had to quarantine five classrooms, each from third grade or below. “Last year we only had one instance where we felt like it was community spread (within the school setting), and this year we are seeing that. In two of the five classes we sent home, we’ve seen multiple positives since then,” she said.
Dr. Gene Shelby, the county health officer, confirmed that this increasing spread was due to the delta variant, which “is three- to four-times more contagious than what we were dealing with last year.”
Nehus said their district had 33 positive student cases and 10 positive staff cases as of Monday morning. The district has a mask mandate in place and staff work consistently to enforce it, but there are challenges with younger students wearing them appropriately all of the time. It is likely because of this that a higher percentage of their cases are among younger students. The Hot Springs School District has also been successful with their vaccine incentive program for students 12 and above.
Lake Hamilton School District (LHSD) also reported that most of their cases are occurring in the younger students. Their district has also seen multiple positive COVID cases from students in classes that are sent home for quarantine, which did not occur in 2020. As of Monday morning, they had 14 positive student cases and four staff cases, along with 76 students in quarantine and an additional six staff in quarantine. Compared to the same time in 2020, they had 10 student cases so far in the school year, whereas this year they have had 33. Last year there were four staff cases up to this point, compared to 11 so far this year.
LHSD Superintendent Shawn Higginbotham said he is continuing to gather data to support their district’s mask mandate, which is also set to be reviewed monthly. He compared his district to another that is almost identical in size and district population. Even though the other district’s community cases are 76 per 10,000, less than LHSD’s 99 per 10,000, “in school, where we have a mask mandate and they don’t, we had 22 student cases on Friday and they had 62 cases on Friday. We had 115 quarantines; they had 537 quarantines. And staff cases are almost twice as prevalent in the district without the face covering mandate,” he said.
Fountain Lake School District implemented a masking policy on Wednesday, Aug. 25, which will be reviewed monthly. They reported 90 students in quarantine from 16 positive student cases and three staff cases, but they avoided having to quarantine an additional 30 students thanks to the mask policy. They also feel like there has been student-to-student spread this year, which they did not see last year, thus pointing to the delta variant as the likely cause.
Lakeside School District reported 23 positive student cases as of Monday morning, and four staff cases. They are equally spread throughout the district. Lakeside also has a mask mandate.
Cutter Morning Star School District has had 17 student cases since the start of school, and they had seven positive cases as of Monday morning. Their cases were also evenly dispersed across their schools. The district has a mask mandate, which will be reviewed every 30 days.
Mountain Pine School District had 11 positive student cases and approximately 100 students and one staff member quarantined for the week of Aug. 22-27. Their mask mandate went into effect on Aug. 26, and it will be reviewed every 30 days.
Jessieville School District had seven positive student cases as of Monday morning, with an additional 38 students in quarantine. Most of their cases are in the elementary school, with a couple from the middle school.
The number of COVID-positive patients in the two Hot Springs hospitals – CHI St. Vincent (CHI) and National Park Medical Center (NPMC) – continued a three-week decline as they reported a total of 64 patients as of Monday morning, compared to the previous three Monday totals of 85, 98 and 110. COVID patients in the ICU decreased from 29 to 21, and 18 require ventilation. Approximately 75% of the area’s hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated. Despite the continued decrease in COVID hospitalizations, hospital representatives encourage the community to remain vigilant, as this second wave has been even more deadly than the first.
Shelby’s weekly COVID statistic update included 19 deaths reported last week, the highest weekly total of the pandemic, bringing the cumulative COVID death count in the county to 322 as of Monday morning. The other numbers were going in a positive direction, with 355 new cases reported last week, down from 598, 618 and 693 in the previous weeks. The positivity rate also dropped to 12.1%, from the previous percentages of 18.4% and 20.7%. Active cases decreased from 868 the previous Monday to 697 at the time of the meeting.
The Monoclonal antibody treatment has been attributed to helping alleviate the burden on the hospital systems. It is being offered by both area hospitals and the Village Health Mart East Gate Pharmacy to members of the community referred by a physician. The treatment is now also 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.
Shelby shared that the county’s vaccination rate went up another percentage point to 35% of the total number of residents who are vaccinated, compared to the statewide total of 40.8% and the nationwide total of 52%. Finding individuals in the county to receive their first vaccine dose is proving difficult. Susan Lester of the Garland County Health Unit commended her staff for attending two community events, including a high school football game, to offer vaccinations. Unfortunately, they only had a total of seven individuals take advantage of the free vaccines from the two events.
Lester said the health unit had a total of 124 individuals who came for COVID testing last week, which is almost double from the previous 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.
The 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.
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.