CARES Act panel OKs $7 million for Northwest Arkansas COVID-19 healthcare proposal

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,303 views 

A healthcare group led by the Northwest Arkansas Council could soon 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 CARES Act Steering Committee recommend approval Monday (July 20) of the healthcare group’s proposal and increased the funding to $7 million along with the wider project scope to include the four additional counties. On Wednesday (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.

However, the committee formed to provide recommendations for the best use of COVID federal aid 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, said Elizabeth Smith, chairwoman of the CARES Act Steering Committee.

Gov. Asa 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. Smith said the committee is making recommendations on $1.25 billion in federal aid but more money is expected. The recommendations, along with proposals, would be provided to Hutchinson to review the next day when possible, she said previously.

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 Wednesday, 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.

“This is work that we have started with private funding, but without state support, without your support, we will not be able to do it to the extent that’s needed,” McElfish said Wednesday. “And we will continue to see these populations bear a disproportionate and quite frankly heartbreaking burden of this disease.”

The money would be used to address a need for the Hispanic and Marshallese populations, Semingson said Wednesday. 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.