Northeast Arkansas has been at the epicenter of new COVID-19 cases and deaths in recent weeks, and the trend has extended into the area’s healthcare systems. St. Bernards has reported that at least 112 of its employees tested positive for the virus, St. Bernards Media Manager Mitchell Nail told Talk Business & Politics on Thursday (Oct. 7).
Due to the recent community surge in cases, St. Bernards has been testing its workforce of more than 2,000 employees, he said. Most of the employees who have tested positive were asymptomatic. Those who tested positive are in quarantine.
The system’s positivity rate has been 5.6% which is below the state’s rate of 7.7% and significantly below Craighead County’s average of 8.5%. He noted that healthcare workers account for about 7.5% of all cases statewide. Infection growth has prompted St. Bernards to expand its COVID unit, a section of the hospital used exclusively to treat virus-infected patients, he said.
“Our community positivity rate stands higher than the state as a whole, so St. Bernards proactively expanded its number of isolated COVID units at St. Bernards Medical Center to reflect our regional situation. The need for any COVID unit expansion is concerning from a community perspective, but our hospital is nowhere near capacity in terms of both isolated COVID beds and overall beds,” Nail said. “Should our community situation heighten, St. Bernards Medical Center can expand its COVID capacity by 200% if needed. In addition, St. Bernards Healthcare as a regional healthcare system can coordinate with outlying facilities should St. Bernards Medical Center ever find itself taxed in terms of capacity.”
The other health system in Jonesboro, NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital and NEA Baptist Clinic have been dealing with a similar case trajectory. NEA Baptist Director of Marketing Ty Jones told Talk Business & Politics they’ve had an average of 15 to 20 employees out each week in their hospital operations due to positive tests or direct exposure, which has led to quarantines. Up to 15 employees per week on the clinic side have been absent due to the virus.
Patient hospitalizations for the virus have ranged from 15 to 25 per week, he said. The caseload has been steady, but the system has not experienced a significant spike in recent weeks, Jones said. If the numbers increase, the system has identified spaces that can be utilized to treat more virus-infected patients.
“Really, we haven’t had a large increase,” he said.
Despite employees missing time, both the hospital and clinic system have remained at full operation. Part of that seamless operation has been fueled by the 400 new employees who have been hired since March. A few, such as front door screeners, have been added to tackle COVID-19, but most have been due to natural growth and it has been relatively unexpected, Jones added.
The latest Arkansas Department of Health numbers show 3,396 cumulative known COVID-19 cases in Craighead County, with 386 active cases and 28 deaths. The county ranks sixth in the state for cumulative cases, with Washington County ranked first at 10,030 cases.