A healthcare group led by the Northwest Arkansas Council wants more than $6.55 million in COVID-19 federal aid to develop a COVID contact tracing program to reduce the spread of the virus in Northwest Arkansas.
The money would be used 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. The group requested Wednesday (July 15) the money in a virtual meeting of the state committee formed to provide recommendations for the best use of COVID federal aid.
President Donald Trump signed March 27 the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that included $150 billion in state aid. Gov. Asa Hutchinson established the 16-member CARES Act Steering Committee to recommend the best use of the federal aid.
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. The proposal was one of several minority healthcare proposals the committee discussed, and it is expected to vote Monday on whether to recommend them for approval, said Elizabeth Smith, chairwoman of the CARES Act Steering Committee.
The Northwest Arkansas 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 would establish the regional response for testing, contact tracing and coordination for special populations in Northwest Arkansas.
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 the presentation.
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. McElfish noted one issue has been that workers have not been able to return to work because they have not received a letter showing they can do so.
Also, case management would be enhanced and to ensure connections to services for the special populations. McElfish said those who have been told to quarantine at home might not have picked up their diabetes medication or have access to food. They want to quarantine but need to be connected with support services to do so, she said.
“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. “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 Latin and Marshallese populations, Semingson said. Latin and 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.
“We want to look at an immediate response to that to really address not only as a public health issue but also an economic issue,” Semingson said, adding that many of the residents are part of the support systems and are poultry workers.
Semingson also spoke about capacity in the area health system and how the area has already started to use private funding to ensure they are prepared and to enhance the response here while working with the Arkansas Department of Health. The group seeks to expand on existing health department guidelines that are being used and reach out to more organizations that are connected to residents who have been most affected by the virus.
“We are proposing to collaboratively work on testing with the critical component being culturally and linguistically — people who speak the language and understand the culture in order to ensure the testing is really ramped up within the Hispanic and Marshallese population,” McElfish said.
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 a presentation from the group.
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.