Hospital capacity in Fort Smith is better than it was last week, but with 401 new COVID-19 cases reported in Sebastian County Tuesday (Jan. 12) the virus remains far from under control.
Rep. Dr. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood said COVID hospitalizations in Fort Smith had improved slightly Tuesday from the past seven to 10 days, which would indicate that the area was moving past infections triggered by holiday gatherings. Johnson is also the medical director for Fort Smith EMS and Southwest EMS and an emergency room physician.
But lower numbers in the hospital does not necessarily equal good news. The Arkansas Department of Health reported 401 new cases of the virus in Sebastian County Tuesday, the number two county for new cases behind Pulaski County, which had 405 new cases reported, according to the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH).
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID Tracker shows Sebastian County with a 1,263 new cases of the virus for the seven-day period ending Jan. 10, which is a 40.49% increase over the county’s seven-day average. There were 121 new hospital admissions of COVID patients in the county during that period, with 25.73% of hospital beds used for COVID patients and 51.32% of ICU beds in the county occupied by COVID patients.
Mercy Fort Smith reported that as of 3 p.m. Tuesday they had 21 COVID-positive ICU patients in addition to 32 other COVID-positive patients hospitalized. The hospital has 38 total ICU beds and 47 total beds available elsewhere in the hospital, said Mardi Taylor, senior media relations and communications specialist with Mercy Fort Smith.
“Our bed availability fluctuates hourly, and we adjust to meet the needs,” said Stephanie Whitaker, vice president of patient care and chief nursing executive at Baptist-Fort Smith. “While our staff is very busy caring for patients, we are able to provide care to patients who come to Baptist Health whether that is for COVID-19 or other medical conditions.”
Both healthcare systems in the city have been working for the past month to vaccinate employees and others in the 1-A tier. Baptist has administered 1,000 vaccines. More than 300 students attending the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith had the option to receive the COVID-19 vaccination Monday (Jan. 11) thanks to a partnership between Coleman Pharmacy and the UAFS College of Health Science. In addition to students, Health Sciences faculty, instructors, and support staff who had not been vaccinated in regional hospitals and clinics also were able to receive the vaccination.
Phase 1-A vaccinations are happening now, which means the vaccine is available for health care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities and high priority groups such as EMS, fire and law enforcement who serve as first responders, primary care, urgent care, college/university student health center, K-12 health clinics and school nurses, dental clinics, pharmacies, home health, private care/personal care, hospice care, dialysis centers, correctional staff involved in patient care and transfer, morticians/funeral home staff involved in direct contact or conducting transports and blood donation centers. Vaccinations are available through worksites and pharmacies, according to the ADH website.
“It is a challenging situation to get those vaccinations completed. With the way the vaccines have to be stored and administered, there are a lot of logistics to make sure the maximum number of doses are used and not wasted,” Johnson said.
Not all eligible for the vaccine are choosing to take it, he said.
“We don’t want this to be mandated. We want those who want the vaccine to be able to get it,” he said.
Johnson said he believes it is time to start vaccinations for the 1-B group, though he knows that group will present even more challenges. Group 1-B includes people 70 years and older, teachers and school staff, childcare and higher education workers, food and agriculture workers, firefighters and police not in 1-A, grocery store workers, public transit workers, U.S. Postal workers and essential government workers. According to the ADH, 1-B is expected to begin Jan. 18.
Fort Smith city directors discussed what the city could do to help with the distribution of the vaccine. Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said the city would be willing to help with communications to get the word out as to who can receive the vaccine along with when and where. He also said there are city facilities available if needed.
Matthew Hicks, director of the Sebastian County Health Unit, said because of the nature of the vaccine, which requires a 15-20 minute waiting observation period after the vaccine is administered, drive-through vaccination clinics, like what are used for flu vaccinations, are not feasible. Dingman said the city could look at sponsoring a site location or vaccination day in future.
“It is important that members of our community continue to properly wear masks in public and around loved ones, maintain social distance, and practice proper hand hygiene. It’s also important for residents to educate themselves about the COVID-19 vaccine and discuss their risk factors with their physicians so that when the time comes to receive the vaccination, they will be ready,” Whitaker said.