Hospital officials warn of system overload; lawmakers more focused on vaccines than mask policy

by Marine Glisovic ([email protected]) 1,089 views 

Ahead of a special session the governor is expected to call later this week, Arkansas lawmakers heard from some of the state’s top health officials on Monday (Aug. 2).

During a Joint Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee meeting, Arkansas Department of Health State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha said 86 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases stem from the Delta variant.

“Today, 1,220 are in the hospital. That is an increase of 81 since yesterday. Also, we had 42 deaths reported, so we are at a total of 6,199 deaths in Arkansas,” said Dr. Dillaha.

Dillaha explained for children ages 0-18 years, the state saw a 267% increase between April and July.

“It went from 21 to 77 children who were hospitalized in each of those months. This is much higher than it was last year for July,” she said.

Arkansas Children’s Hospital President and CEO Marcy Doderer confirmed they currently have 21 hospitalized patients with COVID-19. Nineteen of those patients are in Little Rock and two are in Northwest Arkansas. ACH confirmed out of the 21 patients, 16 are eligible for the vaccine but are not vaccinated.

“Eight of those are in the ICU and five of them are on ventilators. It’s not been our highest peak in recent days. Our peak has been at 24 total patients,” Doderer said.

She explained some of the main concerns they have include children who are sicker than what they saw in previous months or the beginning of the pandemic.

“That is now coupled with a very unusual summer season of high respiratory illnesses that are causing our children to be hospitalized as well,” Doderer added.

She said in the month of July, more than 500 children tested positive for RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus). Most hospitals are also experiencing staffing issues. Doderer said she has not worried about the total number of beds available, but she’s concerned with the staff she’s lacking. She estimated Arkansas Children’s would need an additional 100 nurses to operate at full capacity.

Bo Ryall, President and CEO of the Arkansas Hospital Association, shared statewide numbers with legislators.

“Our high point [of hospitalizations] was 1,339 in January. Today we have 451 in ICU beds, our high point was 443 in January, so we exceeded that,” said Ryall. “We have 250 confirmed on vents. Our high point was 252.”

Ryall said they have 37 ICU beds available statewide. That’s three percent of the beds available across the state.

“The message is clear coming from hospitals: hospitals are full, they’re at capacity,” he added.

Baptist Health Medical Center’s Senior Vice President and Administrator Greg Crain said his staff is stretched thin.

“Our nurses, our doctors, our respiratory therapists, they are phenomenal. When they’re filling shift after shift, because they see a need – they’re tired,” Crain added. “The different disasters we have had, most of them are very short-lived, they’re not months and months…our folks are tired.”

“Based on the data and what we’re hearing, it looks like vaccinations are effective, certainly that’s up to each person on their decision whether or not they want to do that,” said Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville.

“We’re talking about masks and maybe we need to be talking more about encouraging people to get vaccinated because that seems to be what really turns the curve down, not all of this fighting over the masks,” said Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton.

The big question remains: will the legislature give local control to school districts on whether to mandate masks? Sen. Hammer said more scrutiny of data was essential.

“This is a report I asked the hospital association for and it shows that even when we were under the mask mandate that the cases continued to rise, and really what the stark difference is when the vaccine started to be given [for] the significant drop in cases,” he said.

“I will not be for letting different school districts decide whether or not we should be masking children. I think that should be up to the individual families,” Sen. Davis added.

“Something encouraging that we know is N-95 masks are made specifically to protect the wearer so parents and children who are concerned about safety have the option to wear N-95 masks to school and protect themselves,” she added.

While the governor has not officially called the special session, it’s expected to happen this week. Some lawmakers have hinted it will start Wednesday. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has a press conference scheduled for 1:30 pm on Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, the two chambers of the Arkansas General Assembly will meet in a “committee of the whole” to discuss the state’s public health emergency, which the governor declared last week. Unless a lawmaker files a resolution objecting to it, no action will be required and the emergency declaration will remain in place for 60 days. Hutchinson declared the emergency to relax requirements to allow for more medical personnel and resources to be delivered to hospitals and health care organizations.

Editor’s note: Marine Glisovic is the senior political reporter for KATV News and is a contributor to Talk Business & Politics.