In the past two weeks, Sebastian County has seen its numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 jump from zero to 10. The state has seen a jump from 96 cases March 20 to 704 cases as of Friday (April 3). But how accurate are those numbers?
At a press conference Friday for the River Valley Joint Leadership update on the COVID-19 pandemic, Rep. Dr. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, and an emergency room physician, said since a hotline, staffed by healthcare workers from Mercy Fort Smith and Baptist Health-Fort Smith went live March 19, the call center had screened more than 3,000 area residents concerned about whether or not they might have the virus. Of those, 268 were tested at one of the testing facilities in the Fort Smith area.
Johnson reported there is one confirmed case in Crawford County. That person was tested at Baptist Health-Van Buren, he said. Of those tested in Fort Smith, there were 10 confirmed cases, with two patients hospitalized in a Fort Smith hospital.
The Arkansas COVID-19 update dashboard run by the Arkansas Department of Health, shows eight positive cases in Sebastian County with 51 negative test results. It shows one to four in Crawford County with 26 negative tests. That only adds up to 86 to 89 tests, considerably lower than the 268 Johnson reported.
Craighead County, which is similar in size to Sebastian County, has administered 148 tests, 14 of which were positive. If Sebastian County has only administered the 59 tests the state shows it has, it would appear that people in Sebastian County are just not being tested, which would lead to the question why. The 268 number for the combined Sebastian/Crawford area would seem much more realistic, but then why do they differ so much from the state report?
Danyelle McNeill, public information officer with the office of health communications at the Arkansas Department of Health, said ADH numbers reflect test results. She said, there may be pending tests at commercial labs, and the department is unable to track those. Johnson said he believes the Fort Smith area is testing those who need to be tested.
“The number of calls into our call center, they have decreased gradually. The number of people calling in right now is less than when we first started the call center. So yes, we’re testing less, but we’re also seeing less people who feel they need testing,” Johnson said. “As we go along and we see more people that present symptoms … we’ll broaden the testing measures.”
Johnson said it is difficult to make projections with current data, but the healthcare community is working the best they can with the data available. He also said before better data can be gathered there needs to be the ability to test more people and have those results quicker.
“I think all of us in the healthcare community believe that the quicker we can have a rapid turnaround test available, the better the data will be,” he said. “We are acting on the best data we have available for the situation.”
Test results are quicker now than two weeks ago, Johnson said, noting results are usually back within 48 hours.
No matter the data, the Fort Smith area seems to be doing well now, Johnson said. There are plenty of hospital beds and healthcare workers are able to handle the situation. The two patients hospitalized in Fort Smith are not on ventilators, and there are plenty of ventilators to handle Fort Smith’s need at the moment, he said.
“That could change, but we have clear directives on how to request more (ventilators) if the need arises,” Johnson said. “We are well prepared to take care of surge if that happens.”
He reminded residents the hospitals are still able to see those in need of medical care.
“People should not be afraid to come to the hospital. If you have an emergency, don’t just stay home. Come to our hospitals,” Johnson said.
He also reminded people they have to continue safe practices and not be lulled into a false sense of security.
“Do not become complacent,” Johnson said. “I want to remind the community to be diligent with social distancing and hygiene.”
It was not just the Fort Smith area’s physical health the leadership team updated the city on Friday though. Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has reached out to more than half of the chamber’s 1,150 member companies. The results have been a “mixed bag,” he said.
“The hospitality industry has taken a huge hit. It has been especially hard on our hotels,” Allen said. “This is true across the country, and it is no different in Fort Smith.”
Manufacturing on the other hand is going strong in the Fort Smith area with companies reporting that employees are all showing up and working, he said.
“The economy seems strong in Fort Smith. There are job openings and business are hiring,” Allen said.
The job openings tab on the chamber’s website, www.fortsmithchamber.org, showed 11 companies hiring Friday afternoon, some of those with positions open in more than one are location.