Officials respond to big rise in COVID among Fort Smith city employees

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,761 views 

Active cases of COVID-19 have been growing by the thousands daily across the state for the last two weeks. The high number of cases have led many to take extra precautions, the city of Fort Smith included.

With the number of employees testing positive for the virus increasing from six to 28 (a 350% increase) the week of Jan. 10, City Administrator Carl Geffken reinstituted a mandatory mask wearing policy in city offices, public gathering places, elevators and vehicles with two or more people. Masks are not required outdoors.

“Although some may forget or choose not to wear a mask, our employees are very important to me and the City and making sure they remain healthy is critical,” Geffken said, adding that if everyone had masked up and gotten vaccinated, COVID cases would not have surged.

Since Jan. 1, 58 employees have contracted COVID and 26 are out sick, Geffken said. Since Oct. 17, the city has had 76 city employees test positive for COVID, said Shari Cooper, the city’s public relations and communications manager.

“Utilities and police have had the most employees out for COVID during January 2022; however, they are also two of our largest departments. HR tells us that these numbers are similar to where we were a year ago, and that we saw the numbers go down in February. We are hoping that trend continues in February 2022,” Cooper said.

Geffken said the city was not having any difficulties carrying on business as usual because everyone is “pitching in.”

“For those who are recuperating and able to work, we permit working from home if their job permits it,” he added.

The city also has offices and fleets sprayed regularly with a cleaning compound, Cooper said.

Fort Smith Fire Chief Phil Christensen said the fire department continues to implement standard decontamination procedures, including the usage of hypochlorous acid as part of that process.  None of the FSFD employees are working from home, he said. However, at the Fort Smith Police Department, non-uniformed civilian personnel excluding dispatch have the option to work from home until the surge has ended, said Aric Mitchell, FSPD public information officer, noting that is 18 members of the department’s staff.

“The whole goal at this point is to limit as much unnecessary contact as we can while taking the common-sense measures that we know reduce the spread — social distancing, wearing masks,” Mitchell said.

FSPD Chief Danny Baker said since the beginning of the pandemic, the FSPD response has been fashioned around the objective of making sure there are plenty of healthy employees to continue providing basic police services within the community.

“In addition to proven strategies such as wearing masks, social distancing, hand washing, and vaccination, we have continued to take other proactive measures to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 among our officers as the need has arisen. We have been successful in that endeavor and will come through this latest surge of the Omicron variant in a similar manner. We are all tired, but we cannot give up. The end is in sight,” Baker said.

Within FSPD,there are currently 14 employees out related to COVID, which is down about 42% from the 24 that were out at this same time last week. This number includes those who may have tested positive for COVID or were exposed to someone who has.

“So, fortunately, we are trending downward following the initial Omicron surge and the number of employees on leave is an example of our commitment to isolating those sick or who may potentially become ill from spreading the virus to others,” Baker said.

He said those contracting the virus have been across the department, so no single area has been overly stressed.

“As officers leave, those that have been off are returning, which has kept us able to function normally,” Baker said.

Adjusting quarantining requirements to align with the new CDC recommendations has allowed officers to return to work sooner, he said. He said the department had planned for events such as this when it enacted its response plan in February 2020.

“Thus far, it has helped us navigate what has been a transformative and challenging time for our city and nation,” Baker said. “The department has stressed for some time the importance of looking for alternatives to physical arrests, such as pre-arrest diversion or addressing a medical issue with the people we encounter. This further limits contact and helps to control the spread of the disease. We are constantly monitoring the staffing levels and communicating with surrounding agencies. And will do our best to continue to provide the level of service our community expects from us.”