Local hospitals report no issues as vaccinations continue

Thursday, January 14, 2021
Arkansas Department of Health

While many hospitals across the country are struggling to deal with another surge of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly rural hospitals, where beds and staff are limited and space for transfers is limited — Carroll County’s two largest healthcare facilities are weathering the storm without any major problems and are rapidly completing the process of vaccinating their staff against the novel coronavirus.

At Mercy Hospital Hospital in Berryville, a 25-bed critical access facility, the number of patients — both COVID-related and non-COVID — has remained manageable and most of the approximately 125-member hospital staff has already received at least the first dose of the vaccine. Many began receiving the second dose last week.

“We have eight patients total,” Cody Qualls, executive director of development, corporate and community relations for Mercy Berryville, said last week. “Generally speaking, if a patient presents here with COVID, we’re going to try to transfer them to a larger hospital able to provide a higher level of care.”

Arkansas Department of Health

So far, that hasn’t been an issue here, Qualls said. Across the border in Missouri, it’s been a different story as many rural hospitals have struggled to find beds for transfer patients, sometimes sending them hours away to the other side of the state.

“I have heard different stories about different hospitals having trouble,” Qualls said. “Basically, this patient needs transferred and you can’t find a bed for him because of COVID. We have not encountered that here yet. I think there are some other hospitals that maybe have, but it’s not been an issue yet.”

According to data reported by the Arkansas Department of Health, as of Monday morning, there were 1,340 COVID-positive patients hospitalized in Arkansas, with 441 in intensive care, 319 of whom were on ventilators.

“As far as putting a strain on our our staffing or our number of beds that we have available, we’re doing good so far,” Qualls said.

On the vaccination front, Qualls said Mercy received 55 doses of the initial vaccine last month, with another 35 administered last week. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine being administered to healthcare workers is given in two doses approximately 21 days apart. The second dose arrived late last week and was administered to those inoculated last month.

Qualls said last week’s round of vaccinations ensured that all of the hospital staff who wished to be vaccinated — “which is a very high proportion of our staff,” Qualls said — have received at least the initial dose.

At Eureka Springs Hospital, interim CEO Angie Shaw said 26 employees were vaccinated in the first round on Dec. 18. Shaw said the second dose was scheduled to arrive on Thursday, Jan. 7.

“We gave it to the healthcare staff that wanted it and then we offered a couple extra doses to EMS,” Shaw said. “We wanted to make sure our extra doses didn’t go to waste.”

The hospital employs 68 people, Shaw said, so the first round of vaccinations took care of a big chunk of the staff. Shaw said she recently received an email saying more doses will be available to the staff that didn’t get the first round of immunizations.

“That’s something we can offer to employees, EMS and any of our frontline workers that have not received theirs and want it,” Shaw said. “We weren’t sure how it was going to work after this first round — if we were going to have to resubmit our numbers and see if we qualify again — but it sounds like they’re trying to push this out.”

Last week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson outlined the state’s plan regarding vaccine distribution, including a projected timeline for the various distribution phases.

At the top of the list, Phase 1-A includes healthcare workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, along with 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, corrections officers and blood donation centers.

“This category alone is 180,000 Arkansans in this category,” Hutchinson said during his weekly address on Jan. 5. “And our goal is to complete this by the end of January. So we have a lot of work to do. We’re focused on that.”

In February, distribution will shift to Phase 1-B. The second phase of vaccinations will include seniors aged 70 and older, teachers and school staff, food/agricultural workers, firefighters and police not in 1-A, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, child care workers, U.S. Postal Service workers, and essential government workers.

In total, Phase 1-B is expected to include more than 400,000 Arkansans.

“Instead of having age 75-plus in Category 1-B, we have reduced that to age 70-plus,” Hutchinson said. “That is the population that’s at risk in Arkansas. That was the consensus from our health advisers and our team. This is a group at risk and that comprise the group with the most deaths from COVID.”

Of the nearly 4,000 COVID-related deaths reported in the state, 81 percent have been persons aged 65 or older.

Phase 1-C, projected to begin in April, will include people 65-plus years old, people 16-64 years old with high-risk medical conditions and workers in transportation and logistics, water and wastewater, food service, shelter and housing, finance, IT and communications, energy, media, public safety and public health workers.

“It’s necessary to have these priorities simply because we have a limited number of doses and our supply chain is limited,” Hutchinson said. “As it comes in, we’ll be able to move more quickly through these categories.”

Vaccines in Phases 1-B and 1-C will be distributed via community pharmacies and medical clinics.

“This will be a private sector-led effort that is coordinated and directed by the state,” Hutchinson said. “That’s the partnership we have, relying upon the private sector, their expertise, their presence and their relationships in their community.”

Shaw acknowledged that there has been some misinformation about the vaccine, especially when it comes to side effects. From her experience, Shaw said, the vaccine has resulted in few to no side effects.

“We have not had any complications. I’ve had a few people say their arm hurt afterward, but they said it was no different from the flu vaccine,” Shaw said.

Seeing others take the vaccine, Shaw said, has persuaded a few hospital employees to take the vaccine when the next round arrives.

“Some of the folks that did not receive it in the beginning are now asking if we’re going to get more, because they are ready to get it,” Shaw said. “I had a few staff that were on the fence. They were paying attention to the misinformation out there, but then they started educating themselves and now they’re ready for it.”

So far, Shaw said, the hospital hasn’t had very many issues with staffing because of the virus.

“As long as you wear PPE with patients that are COVID-positive and you’re not exhibiting any symptoms, then you’re allowed to work,” Shaw said. “We’re such a small facility that we’re very conscious about COVID patients and just patients in general. We’re able to provide a more intimate service than you’d get at a larger hospital.”

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