As the number of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas continue to surge upward, officials at Mercy Fort Smith and Baptist Health-Fort Smith are urging area residents to get the COVID vaccine. There were 1,022 new cases of the COVID virus reported in Arkansas Sunday, according to the Arkansas Department of Health website.
Dr. Paul Bean, chief of medical affairs with Mercy Fort Smith, said both hospitals want to get the word out that the vaccine is available and that it is now more imperative than it has been “with the variant that is hitting our community as we speak” for people to get the vaccine.
There are ample doses of the vaccine available in the area and Mercy and Baptist have clinics open to vaccinate people 12 and older, Bean said. Carrie Brewton with Baptist Health-Fort Smith said many area pharmacies and the local health department offices also offer the vaccine, which is free.
“It is the responsibility of a good citizen to get the vaccine,” said Dr. Raed Khairy, infectious disease specialist with Baptist Health-Fort Smith. “You want to protect yourself. You want to protect your community, your family, your loved ones, your elderly.”
About 30% of the population of Crawford and Sebastian counties eligible for the vaccine (adults 12 and older) currently are vaccinated, Bean said.
“I think the perception is that this is over. ‘Why would I go get vaccinated now?’ The reality is it’s not over. This virus keeps mutating,” Bean said.
The spread of the Delta variant recently resulted in hundreds of hospitalizations throughout parts of Missouri and has caused a spike in illness in Arkansas, a Mercy press release said. Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Fort Smith area tend to be younger and are getting sicker more quickly and severely, the release said. Mercy ICU directors and nurses have reported seeing a younger group of patients during the current COVID surge, many 55 or younger, said Mardi Taylor senior media relations and communications specialist at Mercy Fort Smith.
There were 43 hospitalized in the two Fort Smith hospitals Monday with 20 of those in intensive care units. That’s about the same amount of hospitalizations as last year at this time, but Taylor said there were fewer in the ICU at the end of July 2020.
Another misconception, said Debbie Hewett, critical care director with Mercy Fort Smith, is that someone who had COVID earlier is protected from it now.
“You do need that vaccine whether you have had COVID or not,” Hewett said.
Although the Delta variant is more infectious than the previous virus, medical leaders say the vaccine limits the severity of the illness, resulting in fewer hospitalizations.
“The vaccines are very effective,” Khairy said. “They prevent critical care illness. They prevent you from going on life support. They save lives.”
He said he is seeing younger patients than in the past and seeing patients going on life support much within just a few days with the new Delta variant. The mortality rate is also much higher than with the first few waves of the virus, and those deaths are happening quicker, added Hewett.
Hospitals also are experiencing greater than normal non-COVID volume, and all urban hospitals in Arkansas are operating at max capacity, said Rep. Dr. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood. Johnson is also the medical director for Fort Smith EMS and Southwest EMS and a practicing emergency room physician.
“Pressure on hospital capacity is worse now than at any point in the pandemic due to the total volume of patients, COVID plus non-COVID. That said, the hospitals in our area are working hard but managing,” Johnson said.
Taylor said Mercy Hospital Fort Smith has capacity to open additional floors to COVID-19 patients as needed.
“It is really sad to see the number of patients going so high (after many months of very few if any patients),” Khairy said.