With the COVID cases in the schools dropping significantly and the hospital numbers starting to decline, Garland County Health Officer Dr. Gene Shelby shared cautious optimism with the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force at the group’s virtual meeting on Monday, Feb. 7.
“We have been in the omicron variant surge for several weeks now; and, to my knowledge, there is not another new variant out there that is of great concern,” said Shelby. “I hate to be too optimistic because we have been fooled in the past, but we are in pretty good shape now.”
Shelby pointed out that we have had a mild flu season despite predictions that this season would be a bad one because there was very little flu last year. He credited the now well-accepted practice of people staying home when they are sick, rather than pushing through their symptoms to go ahead to work or school.
“I hope will be one of the legacies of COVID-19 is that people will be more aware of that, the importance of ‘if you are sick, stay at home,’ because that is the way the flu has been transmitted in workplaces and schools,” said Shelby. Facemasks, too, have lowered the transmission of the flu and other respiratory illnesses, according to Shelby. He continues to promote the use of facemasks when around people you do not know.
Shelby also explained that before COVID can be downgraded from a pandemic to an endemic, there would have to be a drop in COVID deaths to be similar to the number of deaths annually from the flu. COVID-related deaths in Garland County for the 12 months leading up to Feb. 7, 2022, totaled 232, and the 12 preceding months from 2020 to 2021 totaled 214. Shelby said the average number of flu deaths in the county is around five to six each year, meaning we still have a ways to go.
Along with using facemasks to mitigate the spread in moving toward the endemic phase, continued prevalence of testing to identify active cases is important. Although the Garland County Health Unit conducted only nine COVID tests last week, the unit gave out 4,410 of the state-provided at-home test kits during that time. The unit will continue to provide the public with the free test kits, while supplies last. Each kit comes with detailed instructions and illustrations. If users need further assistance in administering the test, they can call the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) Coronavirus Hotline at 1-800-803-7847, or speak to a representative from the local health unit at 501-624-3394. Free COVID testing at the health unit continues to be available until 3 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, and until noon on Fridays, but testing is now done by appointment only.
New isolation guidelines for those who have tested positive in the general public, including workplaces and K-12 schools, have been outlined by ADH on their website at https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/programs-services/topics/covid-19-guidance-for-self-home-isolation.
Although Shelby’s weekly COVID statistic update for the week of Jan. 30 – Feb. 6 included high numbers, he said that the data this week from ADH might have included test results dating back from before this past week. For instance, last Thursday’s data showed 511 new cases for the county, which would be more than double the previous one-day record. There were 1,165 new cases reported last week, or 166 new cases per day, compared to the previous weeks’ 107.6 and 144.4 daily average of new cases per day. The number of tests reported was up from the previous week’s, at 2,826. The positivity rate for the county rose for the third straight week to another record high of 41.2%, but Shelby questioned its accuracy. Active cases fell by 643 from the previous week to 811, at the time of the meeting. Garland County reported six additional COVID-related deaths. Although Shelby said he was not certain if all of those deaths occurred within the past week, he did feel confident additional deaths will be reported in the coming weeks as previous spikes have been followed by a few weeks with rises in deaths.
Hospital representatives from CHI St. Vincent and National Park Medical Center reported a total of 75 COVID-19 patients, a decrease from the 92 patients at the time of last week's meeting. There was a total of 20 COVID patients in intensive care, with 14 requiring ventilation.
School districts were happy to report dramatically lower numbers of COVID cases. There were fewer than 30 total cases reported from the county’s seven public school districts, down from the previous weeks’ totals of 143 and 297.
Cutter-Morning Star School District reported two student cases, and both were scheduled to return to school on Tuesday.
Fountain Lake School District reported three student cases and two staff cases.
Hot Springs School District reported one student case and two staff cases. The district is waiting for its classification by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement to drop to the green category, or fewer than 19 cases per 10,000 for a 14-day period, before it will be able to end its mask mandate. The district is currently in the purple category, with between 100-199 cases per 10,000. The other requirement for the district to end the mask mandate is to have fewer than five cases per building.
Jessieville School District reported six student cases. The district also has 12 students waiting on PCR test results, as well as one staff member waiting on a PRC test result.
Lakeside School District reported four student cases and one staff case.
Lake Hamilton School District three student cases and three staff cases. Superintendent Shawn Higginbotham said that the changes introduced last week by ADH and the Arkansas Department of Education will help districts keep more children in school. The district’s message to families and employees is to stay home if they are diagnosed with or have symptoms of any illness, especially COVID.
Mountain Pine School District reported one student case and no staff cases.
National Park College reported continually dropping case numbers, as well.
Both the City of Hot Springs and Garland County government offices again reported improving numbers with fewer staff being out with COVID. LifeNet reported having only one staff member out at the time of the meeting.
The Garland County Health Unit continues to administer the influenza (flu) vaccine, as well as the following COVID vaccines: pediatric (ages 5 – 18) and adult-dose Pfizer, the initial and booster doses of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson and booster doses for ages 16-17. No appointments are needed for these vaccines or boosters.
The health unit continues to offer its full range of health services inside its facility. Family planning appointments are now being offered four days a week – Monday through Thursday. 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. 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 continues to have 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.