A healthcare group led by the Northwest Arkansas Council will receive $7 million in COVID-19 federal aid to develop a COVID contact tracing program to reduce the spread of the virus among Marshallese and Hispanic residents in Northwest Arkansas and four counties in southwestern and northeastern Arkansas.
The Arkansas Legislative Council (ALC), which comprises state legislators, approved Tuesday (July 28) the proposal that includes hiring contact tracers, COVID testing and case management for those residents. The vote was needed for the money to be used for the proposal.
“We are pleased with the outcome of today’s Arkansas Legislative Council hearing that will allow comprehensive COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and case coordination within the Latinx and Marshallese communities in Northwest Arkansas and in Independence, Randolph, Sevier and Yell counties,” said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “UAMS Northwest and Community Clinic will get to work right away to coordinate these efforts with the Arkansas Department of Health on behalf of the Northwest Arkansas Council Health Care Transformation Division. We expect to be up and running within two to three weeks. We are thankful to Governor Hutchinson, the CARES Act Steering Committee and the Arkansas Legislative Council for this additional support for the Arkansas communities most disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.”
On July 15, the healthcare group asked the state committee for more than $6.55 million to establish a testing center, hire bilingual contact tracing and navigation staff and provide tests for the uninsured and vulnerable populations in Northwest Arkansas. The Northwest Arkansas Council proposed the Northwest Arkansas COVID-19 Comprehensive Response Plan as a collaborative effort for testing, contact tracing and case management in Northwest Arkansas. Testing would be completed using existing resources of the Community Clinic, Walmart, Arkansas Department of Health, labs and area healthcare providers, but it would be enhanced “through culturally and linguistically appropriate navigation of testing for special populations,” according to a presentation from the group.
The healthcare group would use $4 million of the requested funding to complete 15,000 tests per week through the end of 2020. About 30% of the bilingual staff have already been trained to carry out the plan, he said, and hiring and training are underway for additional bilingual staff.
“We have space set up already and are not asking for funding for space,” Peacock noted. “We can launch within 14 days of funding.”
Pearl McElfish, vice chancellor for the Northwest Arkansas regional campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), discussed the proposal at the ALC meeting Tuesday, and said it would be implemented by the group that includes UAMS and other area healthcare providers.
Marshallese and Hispanic residents comprise 70% of the COVID cases in Northwest Arkansas, she said. Hispanic residents represent about 50% of total cases, and Marshallese residents account for about 20%. The goal would be to hire 50% of the contact tracers to be Spanish speaking and at least 20% to be Marshallese, she said. She expected the needed workers to be hired within two or three weeks of the funding being approved.
McElfish also discussed the distrust of Marshallese residents and noted the nuclear bombing of their lands and human testing without their approval. Hiring Marshallese residents for this proposal would help to address the trust issue, she added.
Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who voted for the proposal, explained the outbreak in Northwest Arkansas has been so severe the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a team to Northwest Arkansas to contain the virus and identified the need for a different approach to the issue.
“We’ve got a population that is being devastated,” Hendren said. “The population, they don’t trust us. You know why they don’t trust us. I think everybody knows is because we nuked their islands almost out of existence, causing long-term health damage and consequences. We allowed them to migrate there, and then they are faced with this problem.”
Hendren spoke before the Arkansas Legislative Council voted against a measure to cut the funding for the Northwest Arkansas Council’s proposal to $4 million.
Hutchinson established the 16-member CARES Act Steering Committee to provide recommendations on federal funding from the nearly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that included $150 billion in state aid. Elizabeth Smith, chairwoman of the CARES Act Steering Committee, previously said the committee is making recommendations on $1.25 billion in federal aid but more money is expected. State Budget Director Jake Bleed said about half of the $1.25 billion has been allocated.
On July 20, the CARES Act Steering Committee recommended approval of the proposal. The committee also increased the proposal’s funding to $7 million along with the wider project scope to include Yell, Sevier, Randolph and Independence counties.
The council leads the Northwest Arkansas Health Care Transformation Division that includes Washington Regional Medical System, Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas, Northwest Health, Community Clinic, Arkansas Children’s Northwest, Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, Whole Health Institute and UAMS. In its proposal, the healthcare group has plans to establish the regional response for testing, contact tracing and coordination for special populations in Northwest Arkansas. The initial plan would have included Benton, Carroll, Crawford, Franklin, Madison, Newton and Washington counties, said Stephanie Williams, chief of staff for the Arkansas Department of Health.
A dedicated contact tracing center in Northwest Arkansas would have bilingual Spanish and Marshallese staff that would coordinate with the Arkansas Department of Health software, policies, procedures and subcontractors and work with employers to support the workforce. Also, case management would be enhanced and to ensure connections to services for the special populations.
Northwest Arkansas is home to large Hispanic and Pacific Islander populations who have contributed to the overall economic success of the state and comprise 38% and 7%, respectively, of the Springdale population, according to the presentation. The pandemic has disproportionately affected Hispanic and Pacific Islander residents with infection rates that are nearly 400% higher than the general population. And, they also have faced a higher death rate and a greater need to be treated in the hospital. Because of this, improved testing, contact tracing and case management are needed to manage the spread of the virus in Northwest Arkansas.