A healthcare group led by the Northwest Arkansas Council may yet receive $7 million in COVID-19 federal aid to develop a COVID contact tracing program to reduce the spread of the virus in Northwest Arkansas and four counties in southwestern and northeastern Arkansas.
The Arkansas Legislative Council (ALC), which comprises state legislators, met Friday (July 24) but didn’t act on the healthcare group’s proposal. The proposal was a supplemental (late) agenda item, and the ALC would have needed to vote to review it. Because the ALC did not vote to do so, the Northwest Arkansas Council’s proposal wasn’t reviewed; however, it’s expected to be considered in another ALC meeting that has yet to be set.
“The Council’s proposal will provide comprehensive COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and case coordination within the Latinx and Marshallese communities in Northwest Arkansas, along with Independence, Randolph, Sevier and Yell counties,” said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “The efforts outlined in the proposal were recommended by the CDC and Arkansas Department of Health. UAMS NW and Community Clinic were asked to coordinate these efforts due to long-standing relationships with leaders and community partners within the Latinx and Marshallese communities of Northwest Arkansas. We are confident that once the Arkansas Legislative Council has an opportunity to review and understand the urgency of the proposal, it will approve these much-needed funds to support the communities most disproportionately affected by the virus.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who said he supports the proposal, discussed it in his daily COVID briefing Friday.
“I am anxious for the Legislative Council to approve that because it is needed,” Hutchinson said. “We have 900 cases today. We want to take aggressive action. There is pressure on the Department of Health to do this and to get it done and to get it right. … I hope that the Legislative Council, while they didn’t act on it today, will meet again very quickly and act on that and pass it.
“This is not to build a building. This is to save lives. So, help us out,” he added later in a question-and-answer session. “The money is there. It’s federal money that’s been allocated for this. Let’s simply get the paperwork done so we can proceed with this.”
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.
On Monday (July 20), the CARES Act Steering Committee recommended approval of the proposal. The committee also had increased the proposal’s funding to $7 million along with the wider project scope to include the four additional counties.
On July 15, the healthcare group asked the state committee for more than $6.55 million to establish a testing center, hire 33 bilingual contact tracing and navigation staff and provide tests for the uninsured and vulnerable populations in Northwest Arkansas. But, CARES Act Steering Committee increased the amount by $460,000 and incorporated the project to include those populations in Yell, Sevier, Randolph and Independence counties. The Arkansas Department of Health will serve as fiduciary for the proposal, Smith said Monday.
The Northwest Arkansas Council has 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 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 the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (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, senior deputy of the Arkansas Department of Health.
But Smith said the Northwest Arkansas group would take on contact tracing for Yell and Sevier counties at the additional $460,000 cost. Smith also noted adding Randolph and Independence counties could be done remotely.
On July 15, Pearl McElfish, vice chancellor for the Northwest Arkansas regional campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), Judd Semingson, CEO of Community Clinic, and Susan Barrett, chairwoman of the healthcare group and retired president of Mercy Health System, addressed the committee on the Northwest Arkansas proposal. 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.
The money would be used to address a need for the Hispanic and Marshallese populations, Semingson said. Hispanic populations comprise 17% of Benton and Washington counties, but he said they represent 45%-46% of COVID cases in Benton and Washington counties. The Marshallese population comprises about 2% of the area population but 19% of COVID cases. And, the majority of the deaths in the two counties can be attributed to Marshallese residents.
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.
In a July 17 letter to the CARES Act Steering Committee, Peacock explained that with about 6,600 active cases, Arkansas needs 2,310 contact tracers because 350 contact tracers are needed for every 1,000 active cases. Existing CARES Act funding, however, allows for 1,000 contact tracers for the state as the number of cases continues to rise.
“Northwest Arkansas has been among the top regions in the state and nation for COVID-19 surge, and given the population density it is expected that a significant proportion of cases will continue to be in Northwest Arkansas,” Peacock wrote, noting that almost 70% of Northwest Arkansas cases can be attributed to Hispanic and Marshallese residents.
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.”