Sebastian County and Fort Smith officials joined together Friday (March 20) in an effort to reassure and inform the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fort Smith Mayor George McGill also used the gathering to ask people to support local businesses.
“Know that the state and agencies are here to do all we can to keep this river valley a safe place to live,” Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said at a noon press conference held at the Fort Smith Convention Center.
The mayor was joined by Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken, Sebastian County Judge David Hudson, Eddie Lee Herndon, president of the United Way Fort Smith Area, and Rep. Dr. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, and emergency room doctor. Johnson said that though no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Sebastian or Crawford counties, area healthcare providers are prepared for when there are cases here.
“No one in the (Arkansas) river valley has tested positive. The emergency rooms are down a little right now, which is good,” Johnson said. “We know that it is not detected everywhere it is. We expect it to be in the river valley. We are not going to be surprised. But we are prepared, and we do have the resources.”
According to the Arkansas Department of Health as of Friday morning, between five and nine people have been tested in Sebastian County, all of whom have tested negative. As of Friday, there were 96 confirmed cases in Arkansas.
A hotline, staffed by healthcare workers from Mercy Fort Smith and Baptist Health-Fort Smith, is available for Fort Smith area residents concerned about COVID-19. To reach the hotline, which will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, call (479) 289-6508. Callers will be walked through a questionnaire to help determine whether they should be tested. Health care professionals will be able to clinically assess symptoms over the phone and direct callers to the appropriate next steps and have the ability to schedule a COVID test when appropriate. Only those who fall in the “high risk” category will be advised to be tested.
Officials have confirmed there are test sites at Ben Geren Regional Park and Mercy Fort Smith, but Johnson and others stressed that all testing areas are by appointment only.
“The call center will direct you as to where and when to go if you need a test. We do not want people showing up (at a site) unless they have been directed to it. The testing area is specifically for people screened through the center,” he said.
Area residents are encouraged to use the hotline to reduce exposure to the general public. Those concerned they are have mild symptoms should not go to area emergency rooms because they are contagious, Johnson said.
“There are protocols handed down. Call, and we will walk you through it. Of course if you have an emergency, call 9-1-1. There are still going to be heart attacks, strokes, other emergencies. We are able to handle that. Be thoughtful, but do not neglect and emergency,” Johnson said.
He also noted that the Fort Smith area has an adequate number of testing kits and will be able to test those in need. Turnaround time for results is slow, he said, asking people to be understand and be patient.
Herndon said The United Way of Fort Smith Area in partnership with the United Way of Northwest Arkansas has implemented a 2-1-1 call center for Sebastian, Crawford, Logan, Franklin, and Scott Counties. Residents can speak to a well-trained information and referral operator 24 hours a day. He said the call center is very busy, so it might take a while for residents to connect with an operator. Arkansas residents also can text their zip code to 898-211 for information. Oklahoma residents can text 211OK for information.
“Each and every one of us must take full responsibility for our own actions during this crisis. This is different from the flood. This thing can touch every one of us. You must practice extraordinary hygiene; you must follow directives of those who are working hard to keep you safe,” said McGill, noting this is not only a health crisis, it is an economic crisis.
Small business owners in the area are dealing with significant loss of business and are making tough decisions about what they can do for their employees.
“Support your local businesses anyway you can. If they have a drive-through service, stop by and pick up a meal or two,” McGill said, but reminded people to only get what they need in terms of household goods and groceries. “Please don’t horde. Those essential materials are going to get through to us. Think of you neighbors and friends who need those items as well.”