Although the COVID-19 statistics for Garland County are on a downward trend, Dr. Gene Shelby encouraged the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force at the Sept. 13 meeting to maintain vigilance and use of face masks, as well as promotion of the vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments.
Comparing the current state of the virus in the county to the same time last year, Shelby cited the vaccination availability as a positive, but said there is less mask usage and social distancing. He and others on the task force are anxiously watching the numbers to see if there are upticks resulting from the start of school and Labor Day. In 2020, the winter surge did not begin until mid- to late-October.
Even though the vaccines have offered hope and significantly fewer quarantines, particularly in the school setting, Garland County’s percentage of eligible recipients who have been vaccinated continues to lag behind the state and nation. Shelby said that over the past month, the county has added around 1% of the population to the vaccinated total each week, which has trended with the national level’s increases. The county rose around 2% among those eligible for the vaccines (12 and up) this past week.
“If we don’t get vaccination rates up significantly, we’ll likely be having this conversation next September,” Shelby said in his concluding remarks.
Like with the vaccines, data on the monoclonal antibody treatment continues to strongly support its use. This treatment, when taken early in the infection or as a preventative measure for high-risk individuals following exposure, reduces the severity of the disease and chances of the individual requiring hospitalization.
City Manager Bill Burrough, who joined the meeting on his first day back in the office in two weeks following his breakthrough case of COVID, credited the treatment in aiding his recovery.
“I had a pretty rough three or four days before getting the monoclonal antibody treatment. A couple of days later, I started feeling better. For anyone who comes down with COVID, don’t hesitate to get this treatment. It, along with the vaccine, is probably what kept me out of the hospital,” said Burrough.
The monoclonal antibody treatment is offered at no cost. Pharmacists have recently been given authority to provide the treatment, without the need for a physician referral, to those who qualify. Cody Turner, pharmacist at Village Health Mart East Gate Pharmacy who is helping coordinate and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, said their pharmacy has begun to administer the treatment. For eligibility requirements and to schedule an appointment, visit https://www.eastgatepharmacy.com/monoclonal-antibody-therapy-mab. Both area hospitals – National Park Medical Center (NPMC) and CHI St. Vincent (CHI) – as well as other area pharmacies, including Healthy Connections (https://healthy-connections.org/monoclonal; 479-437-3300), are also offering the treatment.
In his Garland County COVID statistic report for the week of Sept. 6 – 12, Shelby said the number of new positive cases was 266, or 38 per day, compared with 416, or 59.4 per day, the previous week. With 2,454 tests reported, the positivity rate was 10.8%, compared 12% the previous week. Compared to a month ago, Shelby said the cases per day and positivity rate have both dropped significantly (88.3 to 38/day and 20.7% to 10.8%). The active cases dropped by 111 from 593 last week to 482 at the time of the meeting. There were nine deaths reported last week, whereas the previous three weeks had seen death totals in the double-digits.
The hospitals reported a total of 47 COVID-positive patients, with an additional three PUIs (persons under investigation). At the time of the meeting, there were 21 COVID patients in intensive care, with 18 requiring the use of ventilation. A spokesperson with NPMC touched on the long-lasting effects of the virus by sharing that more than half of their current confirmed COVID-positive patients have had continued complications requiring hospital stays of 20 days or longer.
LifeNet shared that their wait times and run volumes have trended down with the case numbers in the county.
Last week, the Hot Springs School District lost its second staff member to COVID; both were employed in the Transportation Department. At the time of the meeting, the district had 36 active student cases and four active staff cases. As of last Wednesday, there were 123 students in quarantine, which was down by almost half from the previous week. Even though there has not had to be any full classrooms quarantined over the past two weeks, the greatest challenges continue to come from the elementary schools. The district will be reviewing their mask policy at next week’s school board meeting.
The Jessieville School District had 20 student cases and five staff cases, as of Sunday. There were an additional 90 students in quarantine. Most of their cases are coming from their high school. Jessieville has been the only district in the county without a face mask mandate. The school board revisited the topic at their meeting Monday evening, and decided to continue to strongly encourage the use of face masks rather than enact a mandate.
Mountain Pine School District reported only one active student case, which is in their elementary school. They will also be reviewing their mask mandate at their board meeting next week.
Lake Hamilton School District is down around 50% in new student cases and quarantines since last week with five student cases and 36 others out on quarantine, all exposed outside of the school setting. They have three current staff cases. Although their district has had three times the number of cases compared to this time last year, they have had far fewer quarantines thanks to their mask mandate and the vaccinations. Their school board will be reviewing their mask mandate next Monday.
Lakeside School District is also trending in the right direction with five student cases and one staff case. There are an additional 25 students out on quarantine, which, again, was attributed to being low because of the mask mandate and vaccinations.
Fountain Lake School District, like Jessieville, has seen case levels remaining up with 15 student cases, which had come down around 10 over the weekend. By implementing their mask mandate, they have also been able to minimize quarantines, with 42 reported at the time of the meeting.
National Park College is down in active cases, to five, but has more in quarantine this week compared to last week.
The group of educational representatives asked for Shelby’s input in terms of when consideration should be given to removing mask mandates. The consensus was multi-factorial, including a sustained downward trend and a low amount of virus in the community and school district. Including the vaccination rate of the district and institution’s employees was also mentioned, which Shelby said could be another positive motivating factor for more people to complete their vaccinations. Representatives also expressed hoping to avoid removing a mask mandate, only having to reinstate it if cases rise again.
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 performed COVID testing for 39 individuals last week and 92 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. 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.