Hospitals on high alert amid spread of coronavirus

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,403 views 

As the coronavirus continues to spread in Arkansas, hospital officials are working to prepare for the highly contagious virus that has infected 127,800 people around the globe, more than 1,300 in the U.S. and six positive cases in the Natural State as of Thursday (March 12).

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday there are now five “new presumptive” cases in the state, specifically in Pulaski, Jefferson, Saline and Grant counties. That’s in addition to the first positive diagnosis announced Wednesday.

“The last 48 hours have been a whirlwind,” the governor said in a press conference held mid-day Thursday. “Out of an abundance of caution … the schools in those four counties should be closed for the next two weeks.”

Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) confirmed Thursday a worker in its Little Rock hospital tested positive to COVID-19. Arkansas Children’s said the individual was immediately quarantined and tested in coordination with the Arkansas Department of Health. The results are a presumptive positive, according to hospital officials.

“We are in the process of identifying and contacting all staff members, patients and families who came in contact with this individual. We continue to follow the guidance of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arkansas Department of Health in response to COVID-19. As we go forward, if an individual has been exposed to a person with COVID-19, or if someone is exhibiting symptoms, Arkansas Children’s working with the Arkansas Health Department, will follow CDC guidelines for assessment and management of healthcare personnel. This will include determining the level of exposure and may include being quarantined and monitored for symptoms,” hospital officials said.

Officials with ACH and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) issued this joint statement: “This is not a time to panic. We are prepared.”

UAMS is offering a free screening tool available 24 hours a day at This service is for patients of all ages. Consumers can access it from a smartphone, tablet, laptop or computer with video capabilities. UAMS has also set up a web page with information for the general public.

Arkansas Children’s has set up a 24-hour hotline (800-743-3616) to address issues related to child health. ACH also reminds consumers to do the simple things to avoid viruses: stay home if sick, wash hands with soap and water frequently, avoid people who are sick, and avoid large gatherings. If consumers must travel, they should check with the CDC prior to travel about exposure risks.

Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe told Talk Business & Politics the risk to the state will depend on the volume of cases in the next few weeks and severity of those cases. When asked about the state’s bed capacity, Bledsoe said if the cases are mostly mild and don’t require hospitalization there won’t be a capacity crunch.

“That said, any given day emergency rooms across the state are working at near maximum capacity and this will be a challenge as more cases present,” Bledsoe added.

He said if the mild cases intensify and require hospitalization, there could be bed shortages around the state. He said state officials are watching the few cases to determine the risk for them to intensify. When asked about the risks to healthcare workers on the front line, Bledsoe, an emergency room physician in addition to his role as surgeon general, said he has spoken with hospital officials around the state who are working to protect health care workers.

He said when a person enters a hospital with symptoms or potential exposure to COVID-19, they are given masks. He said if suspicious risks are present the patients will be isolated in private rooms and cared for by healthcare workers who wear protective gowns and masks like with any other infectious disease. Bledsoe said the high transferability of COVID-19 requires hospitals to be vigilant on the front-end. He said hospitals must protect doctors and nurses because a 10% decline in health care workers would cripple the state’s health care system

“Every hospital in the state has a pandemic plan that can be rolled out in situations like this.” he said.

Bledsoe said it’s only a matter of time before Northwest Arkansas has its first case given the travel in and out of the region. He said it’s inevitable in the larger metro areas.

A statement from Mercy Hospitals in Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith noted: “Our focus has been preparing co-workers in both clinics and the hospital to respond appropriately in the case of a possible patient. We are yet to have a coronavirus case, but here is the protocol.

“When patients check in, our electronic health record prompts our front desk staff to ask about their travel history and symptoms of a communicable disease. If they have traveled to China, Iran, Italy, Japan or South Korea and have symptoms like fever, cough, etc., the system prompts staff to immediately mask and isolate the patient. That sets off our highly infectious disease protocol, where our co-workers would don personal protective equipment (per CDC guidelines) and start caring for the patient.”

Mercy also said its facilities are routinely disinfected as the hospitals care for patients who are ill with complications from other respiratory viruses like the flu. Mercy said because COVID-19 is spread from person-to-person, they isolate those who may have been exposed.

“Our co-workers use personal protective equipment when caring for those patients, like special masks and gowns and eye protection, that not only protect them but also stop the spread to the rest of the community,”spokeswoman Jennifer  Cook said.

She also said Mercy is working to set up a drive-through test collection site in the St. Louis area, where there has been one confirmed case of COVID-19. She said the hospital group is working through plans to set up similar sites in other Mercy communities.

Officials with Northwest Health System said its hospitals are prepared for all types of infectious diseases such as measles, flu or new viruses like COVID-19. The hospital said it has 487 beds and a combined staff of more than 900 doctors ready to provide to care for patients.

“We are taking proactive steps to prepare for the protection of patients, our caregivers and the community and monitoring ongoing updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) related to COVID-19. All patients are being screened for COVID-19 symptoms and risk factors and we have a response plan to protect patients and our staff should it be needed. When a physician determines a patient meets the risk criteria, they will order testing and manage the patient’s care and ultimate disposition,” noted a statement from Northwest Health.

In a statement, Washington Regional said its providers and staff have been trained on procedures to identify and treat COVID-19.

“Our team is working closely with the Arkansas Department of Health and CDCl to monitor the latest developments and implement recommended screening and treatment guidelines. In order to protect the health of those we serve, Washington Regional Medical Center is discouraging visitation from our community members to protect the wellbeing of your loved ones. If you have any symptoms of illness, please plan your visit for another time.”

The hospital group said consumers with doctor’s appointments should keep those dates. As with any illness, they should contact their doctor prior to the appointment if not feeling well to determine if they should reschedule their appointment.

Mercy, Washington Regional nor Arkansas Children’s addressed bed capacity or respiratory equipment capacity should the virus spread through the community. Bledsoe said it depends on the number of cases that move beyond mild infections and require hospitalization.

Bledsoe fully supports health officials asking people to stay close to home to avoid large social gatherings because it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Gov. Hutchinson signed an emergency order proclamation Wednesday afternoon that allows the Secretary of Health to issue orders of isolation or quarantine “as necessary and appropriate” to control the spread of the coronavirus. In consultation with the governor, the secretary “shall have sole authority over all instances of quarantine, isolation, and restrictions on commerce and travel throughout the state.”

It also outlines broad latitude for the Secretary of Health, in consultation with the governor, to deal with matters of commerce, transportation, education and emergency management.

Bledsoe said while the closures and cancelations recently announced in the sports world, the business world and throughout academia may look like alarmism, given the way the virus has spread in other countries it’s better to over-react than try to deal with the devastating effects of a pandemic. He said Arkansas hospitals and health care providers are on high alert and will do their best to treat the infected and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus until a vaccine is available.

“Be discerning. Be wise. Be prepared, but don’t be panicked,” Bledsoe said.