COVID-19 cases numbers rising in Fort Smith metro; physician touts use of face masks

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 9,203 views 

As Arkansas’ COVID-19 numbers continue to rise, the Fort Smith metro continues to see more positive diagnoses of the virus. As of Wednesday (June 17), there were seven patients with COVID-19 in the two Fort Smith hospitals, and three of those on ventilators.

The state is now reporting 13,606 positive cases of COVID-19 having been diagnosed in the state, an uptick of 380 new community cases in the previous 24 hours.

Between Fort Smith’s two hospitals, which began testing for the virus in March, there had been 8,219 people tested with 158 testing positive as of Tuesday (June 16), said Rep. Dr. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood. Johnson is also the medical director for Fort Smith EMS and Southwest EMS and a practicing emergency room physician.

River Valley Primary Care, which began testing three weeks ago, has conducted 2,751 tests with 45 positives. That’s a total of 10,970 tests with a positivity rate of 1.8%. RVPC testing is more recent, and their positivity rate is 1.6%, Johnson said.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard Wednesday, there have been 187 total known cases in Sebastian County, with 96 active cases and two deaths. There have been 65 total cases in Crawford County, with 28 active and no deaths. Not all patients who test through the Fort Smith hospitals or RVPC live in Sebastian or Crawford counties. Those tested include patients living in the surrounding Arkansas counties and in Oklahoma, Johnson said.

What the data shows is that numbers in the Fort Smith area are rising. What they do not indicate is that the virus is just hitting the area. When testing first started in March, there were a limited number of tests that could be given. They were reserved for those who were high risk with symptoms, with high-risk meaning they had been exposed to someone who had tested positive to the virus or traveled to an at-risk area, Johnson said. In doing so, testing was missing many who were infected with the virus and asymptomatic, but still spreading the virus.

Through contact tracing and much more extensive testing, experts have learned that as much as 50% of those testing positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic, Johnson said. This includes three groups – those who are pre-symptomatic (they have the virus but have not started exhibiting symptoms yet, though they will in the next few days); post-symptomatic (those who have dealt with the virus, had symptoms and are now recovered but still testing positive for the virus); and those who never develop symptoms.

Of those groups, those who are post-symptomatic are the only ones believed to not be spreading the virus, Johnson said.

“We know some who test positive for many weeks after symptoms. We don’t think they are contagious. We think they are continuing to shed pieces of the virus, not the whole virus. The test tells if it’s a live virus or a shedding virus,” Johnson said. “There is still a lot we don’t know.”

Because many of those who are positive for the virus only experience mild symptoms, there is even more confusion on who might be contagious. Mild symptoms are subjective. Anyone testing positive who does not feel like they need to go to the hospital is considered to have mild symptoms, Johnson said.

While some mild symptoms might not be an indicator of the virus, others, even if mild, seem to be more reliable. A cough is the most common symptom of COVID-19, but a mild cough can also be indicative of allergies, sinuses, a mild cold or just breathing in something. On the other hand, the loss of sense of smell in any fashion is a fairly good indicator, Johnson said.

The medical community is “pretty sure” patients are not contagious anymore after 14 days of being infected with the virus. Because it takes at least three days to test positive, the recommendation is that someone testing positive, whether exhibiting mild symptoms or asymptomatic, should stay out of the public for 10 days, Johnson said. During those 10 days, the person is likely contagious and spreading the virus.

Rising numbers show that the virus is in the area, no matter if that is due to more testing or people gathering together more. While there is no cure or vaccination for the virus yet, there are non-pharmaceutical approaches that can protect against the virus, Johnson said. Those include washing hands, using hand sanitizer, social distancing, not gathering together in large groups and wearing masks, Johnson said.

“The most common misperception is that we expect the mask to protect us from the virus. That’s missing the point. It is to prohibit you from spreading the virus,” Johnson said. “(Wearing a mask) is polite, like covering your mouth when you sneeze. You wouldn’t go out and sneeze on people and say you don’t cover your mouth because you are tough and won’t live in fear. We need to stop politicizing [wearing face masks].”

The recommendation is to wear a face mask when being six feet away from others is not possible. This includes places such as grocery and hardware stores, gardening centers, meetings and going into and leaving restaurants, Johnson said.

A simple single-layer cotton mask will stop 20% of particles from getting from one mouth into the air around it and possibly infecting another. It’s like throwing a handful of rocks at a chain-link fence. Some rocks will get through, but not all of them, Johnson said. The tighter weave of the material, the fewer percentage of particles get through.

“It’s a no-cost or at least low-cost alternative. Wearing a mask is not going to hurt the economy… same as not shaking hands. You don’t hear people say, you aren’t going to stop me from shaking hands, but they look at masks as a sign of weakness. But we should embrace any of the low cost, no cost, non-pharmaceutical methods. … We need to be diligent,” Johnson said.