Arkansas health officials are working with the state’s hospitals and nursing homes to guard against an outbreak of coronavirus, the groups said in a joint press conference on Monday (March 9) at the state capitol.
The Arkansas Department of Health and Department of Human Services issued a directive on Monday asking the state’s long-term, residential and assisted living facilities to take extraordinary precautions to isolate their elderly patients – those deemed most at risk – from exposure to the deadly virus.
The directive seeks to identify and screen any staff or visitors who have traveled overseas or in high-risk states in the last 14 days; staff or visitors who have come in contact with possible infection; and staff or visitors who may have flu-like symptoms, including fever or respiratory ailments. Facilities are being directed to restrict entry to anyone who meets the screening criteria.
“We are hoping to prevent it from getting into our facilities. If it does, we want to limit it,” said Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, and assisted care centers across the state.
The highest risk individuals to COVID-19 are older people with depleted immune systems. In Washington state, 12 people died when the coronavirus spread rapidly at one nursing home.
State health officials said there are still no reports of any confirmed coronavirus patients in Arkansas, although surrounding states have identified cases. Nate Smith, Secretary of Health, said that about 100 travelers are being monitored in state. While there are protocols in place for dealing with pandemics, health officials are largely reliant on self-reporting from those with symptoms.
“It’s not a perfect system, but this is what we’re able to do at this point,” Smith said.
He said that as of Monday morning, 600 people have called a health department hotline to seek guidance on their flu-like symptoms. Smith warned that not all of those callers are necessarily potential coronavirus cases.
Smith also told legislators at a Joint Public Health Committee meeting that the state has between 1,800-2,000 test kits. He noted that testing individuals may take more than one kit. He also said that there are growing resources through commercial testing labs to have more tests run more rapidly.
Jodianne Tritt, executive VP for the Arkansas Hospital Association, said the state’s hospitals have been doing pandemic planning for years. She urged people with illnesses to only seek hospital care if necessary.
“Our first priority is to protect our most vulnerable patients,” Tritt said. “If done correctly, it will appear we over-reacted.”
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, chair of the Senate Public Health Committee, said state legislators are working in concert with the executive branch and the federal government to coordinate responses. She encouraged constituents to contact local lawmakers to steer them to resources at the local and state level.
Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, chair of the House Public Health Committee, said “it’s only a matter of time” before Arkansas contracts its first case.
“It’s important not to overreact in our policies and our normal activities,” Ladyman said.