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COVID breaks records; local hospital ICU's expand, scramble to staff


Mask up, vaccinate

Garland County’s active COVID-19 case count has reached record levels and area hospitals are having to expand their Intensive Care Units, but the larger issue lies in lack of staffing.


"At this time, staffing seems to be the biggest issue our healthcare providers are facing," Garland County Judge Darryl Mahoney said in an email to The Post on Tuesday. "The lack of nursing staff nationwide has placed all healthcare providers in an unprecedented position, however, they are doing an excellent job in dealing with this pandemic. Our DEM director is in constant contact with the State of Arkansas in regards to new site evaluations and strategic plans. I am sure that increased hospital capacity will be looked at on a regional basis provided staff can be found to provide care for patients."


National Park Medical Center Chief Nursing Officer Lisa Wallace told The Post in an email on Tuesday that over the past few weeks their facility has certainly seen and felt the impact of the COVID-19 Delta variant.


"We have more COVID-19 patients than any other time during the pandemic, currently with 35 confirmed positive, and numbers increasing more quickly than they did previously," Wallace said. "We can confirm that the vast majority of our COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

"We continue to use enhanced cleaning measures, require masking for all who enter our facilities, and strongly encourage our neighbors to not delay the care they need. Our message to the community is to take this variant, and COVID-19 in general, seriously. If you haven’t yet, please get your vaccine and wear your mask when you are unable to maintain social distance. Our facility is still here ready to safely care for you and your family, including intensive care needs."


Wallace added that NPMC has a variety of career and volunteer opportunities available, ranging from clerical to bedside care. Visit nationalparkmedical.com/careers for a list of available jobs, or nationalparkmedical.com/volunteering to learn more about volunteer opportunities.


Despite some community members like hotelier Parth Patel offering his empty hotel rooms to assist in the need for ICU space, City Manager Bill Burrough told The Post in an email on Tuesday there are currently no plans that he is aware of to utilize any space outside of the hospital setting.


"The challenge we currently face is being able to staff an additional location. Our healthcare providers are doing an excellent job, but are in need of additional nursing staff," Burrough reiterated.

"Last year," he continued, "there was discussion and tour of the convention center as a potential site if needed. I believe those were preliminary visits as the state was developing a contingency plan. I am not aware of that happening again since."


According to a Garland County COVID-19 Task Force news release on Monday, with schools starting next week they urge everyone who has not yet been vaccinated to strongly consider doing so as soon as possible, and for face masks to be worn when social distancing is not an option.


The following is from the task force's release:


At the time of the task force meeting on Monday, Aug. 9, there were more than 110 COVID patients between CHI St. Vincent and National Park Medical Center, which is almost double the number of COVID patients reported two weeks ago.


CHI has 30 patients in the ICU, 20 due to COVID, after expanding their ICU capacity beyond their normal 25 beds. The average age in the ICU is 58, and their youngest COVID ICU patient is 33. NPMC’s ICU is full at 16 patients, and 13 are COVID patients. Their youngest COVID ICU patient is 24, and the average age has been trending much younger than previously in the pandemic.


CHI reported that 85% of their COVID patients are un- or not-fully vaccinated, and 75% of their ICU COVID patients are un- or not-fully vaccinated. NPMC similarly reported that 75% of their overall COVID patients are un- or not-fully vaccinated.


“I think we are in a real sobering moment in Garland County. Our numbers are not lying – we are at the worst we’ve been at during the pandemic – and the numbers are still going up,” Garland County Health Office Dr. Gene Shelby said.

“We need to promote vaccinations and face coverings and do all that we can to protect the citizens of Garland County because the reports from the hospitals are pretty stark and the trends are even more troublesome.”


Shelby, in his weekly COVID statistic update, said there were 693 new cases reported during the week of Aug. 1 – 8. The average number of cases per day of 99 shows the upward trend as the previous weeks’ daily averages were 81, 60 and 32. The number of active cases in the county rose by 120 from last Monday to a record high of 890. There were 3,343 tests completed last week, making the positivity rate 20.7%, which Shelby said is one of the highest rates we have had. There were four COVID-related deaths added.


Shelby said that Garland County continues to lag behind the state and nation in terms of the percentage of the total number of residents who are vaccinated. At the time of the meeting, the U.S. was at around 50%, Arkansas was at 37.3% and Garland County was at around 32%.


For vaccination information and locations in Garland County, visit www.cityhs.net/vaccine.

Monoclonal antibody treatment is still being offered by both CHI and NPMC to members of the community referred by a physician. This infusion treatment has been effective at helping keep high-risk patients, including those with co-morbidities, from developing severe cases of COVID that would require hospitalization. Cody Turner, pharmacist at Village Health Mart East Gate Pharmacy who is helping coordinate and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, said their pharmacy is also working toward being able to offer the infusion treatment.


Of the two school districts with representatives in this week’s meeting, one reported two current positive cases with 50 students and staff in quarantine, including the whole varsity football team. The other school district also had two positive cases, which required six total quarantines.

They both said their communities continue to push back on the use of face masks and many are resisting vaccinations. The districts are going to continue to strongly encourage the use of face masks and the importance of vaccinations, and in doing so will convey to their communities the seriousness of the challenges being faced by the medical community. Going into this year appears to be more challenging than last August with the masking option being uncertain, no statewide restrictions to extra-curricular activities and more students returning to on-site instruction.


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’s COVID testing numbers continue to increase, with 92 individuals being tested 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 rise, 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.