State officials stark in assessing pandemic
By Scott Loftis
and Haley Schichtl
Arkansas health secretary Dr. Jose Romero on Tuesday compared the state’s rising number of COVID-19 infections to “a boulder rolling down a hill,” and warned that “there will come a time when we cannot stop it.”
Romero spoke during Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s weekly COVID-19 update in Little Rock. Both he and Hutchinson referred to the most recent report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. That report, issued earlier Tuesday, painted a stark picture of the pandemic’s effects in Arkansas.
“In the White House report they used this language: ‘Given the change in the slope in the last two weeks, post-Halloween, Arkansas is on the precipice of a rapid, accelerating increase in cases which will be followed with new hospital admissions,’ ” Hutchinson said. “Now, that’s a statement that will get your attention as a leader. We look at the holiday season that is approaching and we have to be mindful that if Arkansas continues at the present pace over the last two days, then Arkansas will have an additional 1,000 Arkansans that will die as a result of COVID-19 between now and Christmas. And that, for anyone who wants to enjoy the spirit of Christmas, is a cloud that hangs over us. And that should inspire us to do well, to follow the guidelines, to do everything we can to break that trend, and that is our goal.”
Hutchinson reported 1,554 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases in the state in the previous 24 hours, while hospitalizations because of the virus increased by 34 to a record 895. Hutchinson reported 20 additional deaths from the virus, following Monday’s record high of 42.
In Carroll County, one person has died from the virus in the past week, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. The ADH reported Tuesday afternoon that there has been a cumulative total of 1,195 cases among Carroll County residents, including 1,120 confirmed cases and 75 probable cases. That represents an increase of 61 confirmed and 18 probable cases in the past week. The health department reported 86 active confirmed cases and 24 active probable cases in the county — an increase of 17 active confirmed and 13 active probable cases since Tuesday, Nov. 10.
Meanwhile, the Berryville School District’s middle school and high school moved to virtual instruction on Thursday, Nov. 12, citing a high number of cases and quarantines among staff and students. Students won’t return to campus until Nov. 30, after the Thanksgiving break.
Statewide, Arkansas recorded 11,667 new cases in the seven-day period beginning Wednesday, Nov. 11 — an average of more than 1,666 per day. The health department reported at least 1,800 new cases for four consecutive days to start that period, including a record of 2,312 on Friday, Nov. 13. A total of 133 deaths were reported during that seven-day span, while active cases increased by 2,615 — an 18.7 percent jump.
Romero urged Arkansans to wear masks, wash their hands and maintain social distance.
“As (the White House report) stated for the first time in very pointed language, we are on the precipice of a significant and possibly uncontrollable rise in cases,” he said. “This is like a boulder rolling down a hill. There will come a time when we cannot stop it. It will continue to escalate and will eventually overwhelm our healthcare facilities.”
The White House panel recommended limiting restaurants’ indoor capacity to 25 percent and limiting bar hours in 52 of the state’s 75 counties — including Carroll — but Hutchinson indicated he has no plans to follow that recommendation.
“If you put the restrictions back down to one-third, you would be shutting down a whole bunch of businesses,” he said. “They’re there by a thread in some cases. They have managed with a two-thirds capacity, so they’re already limited, and if you cut that back further, you’re going to be putting a lot of them under water and you’re going to be putting a lot of people unemployed.”
Instead, Hutchinson said the state will be ramping up compliance efforts to ensure businesses abide by the state’s mask mandate.
While Berryville’s middle school and high school pivoted to virtual instruction, the elementary and intermediate schools are continuing on-site instruction.
“We have a high number of positive, and we’ve got a really big number of quarantined due to contact with the positives, with both staff and students,” superintendent Owen Powell said. “So we really needed to pivot and go virtual to try and get the numbers down.
“We thought it was a good time to pivot, because not only are we getting a couple days this week, we’re getting all of next week, and the following week is Thanksgiving break,” Powell said. “So we’re really only pivoting seven school days, but we’re getting two and a half weeks where we can distance everybody out.”
The health department reported Thursday, Nov. 12, that there was a cumulative total of 89 cases among Berryville staff and students, with 63 cases involving students and 23 involving staff. The report noted that “student and faculty/staff cases may not add up to the cumulative total due to unavailable data.” The report said there were 10 active cases among Berryville staff and students.
Students who need internet access can come to campus to do their virtual assignments, unless they are not feeling well or need to be quarantined because of contact with someone who has tested positive.
Connect 4 classes will continue onsite as usual, and those in athletics will be contacted by their coaches.
Staff who are not positive or in quarantine will be on campus, bus routes will run as usual, and curbside meal pickup will continue as usual.
In a news release issued last week, doctors at Mercy Hospital Berryville reminded patients to stay vigilant about routine health screenings and to seek emergency care for serious symptoms such as chest pain or signs of a stroke.
“With all of the precautions we are taking, including social distancing, wearing masks and hypervigilant cleaning protocols, medical clinics and hospitals are some of the safest places to be,” said Dr. Richard Taylor, a hospitalist who is chief of staff at Mercy Berryville. “We urge you not to postpone getting tests such as a mammogram or colonoscopy, because those screenings detect highly treatable problems and we want to catch them early.”
Likewise, Taylor said some patients are presenting with more serious symptoms in the emergency room because they delayed care for fear of contracting coronavirus. Patients have the best chance at a good outcome if they get treatment as quickly as possible for serious medical ailments, he said. Not seeking care can result in their condition becoming worse.
Patients with respiratory symptoms or suspected cases of COVID-19 are triaged and separated from patients with other issues to lessen the possibility of transmission. A recent study by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences found a very slight chance of COVID-19 infection, less than 1 percent, from a hospital visit, the Mercy news release said.
Mercy Hospital Berryville features six negative-pressure rooms, which have specialized ventilation systems that aid in infection control and prevention. Four rooms serve patients in the ER and two are available to hospitalized patients.
“Mercy physicians are also having great success seeing patients via video and telephone for less serious medical problems, such as allergies, colds and urinary tract infections,” the news release said. “Mercy clinics offer in-person appointments and walk-ins for issues that can’t be addressed through a remote visit, with precautions taken, including requiring masks for all co-workers and patients and limiting waiting room interactions.”