‘All of a Sudden It Blows Up’: Arkansas' COVID Problem Is Just Getting Started
For months, the New Yorkers saw their hospitals flooded with COVID-19 patients and corpses piled up in refrigerated hearses with an overflow. In the meantime, other parts of the country have not even implemented a nationwide ban.
For those hoping that a lot of southern and rural countries could have avoided the worst of the pandemic, Friday's case numbers provided a grim answer.
Arizona, North Carolina, California, Florida and Texas hit record COVID-19 infections this week when public health officials urged their communities to take the ongoing crisis seriously.
However, there are few states whose experience with the coronavirus pandemic has shifted more radically in recent weeks than in Arkansas.
On Friday, the state reported that there were 731 new cases, a record rise. These numbers brought the cumulative total there to 11,547, of which 3,764 were active. At the last count, 176 people had died from the virus.
Even when Arkansas witnessed its first COVID-19 case in March - and had its share of "super spreader" events - experts for the first time painted a picture of communities there exposed to the rage of the pandemic.
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"It is part of a broad pattern of resuscitating infections in the United States that is common in many states," said William Haseltine, a public health expert, former Harvard Medical School professor known for his work on HIV, and President of the Global Health Think Tank ACCESS Health International. "We're going to see hospital systems in states like Arkansas. Start experiencing what we've done in New York and the facilities are overwhelmed by this epidemic."
The Washington Regional Medical System in Fayetteville, Arkansas, wrote in a letter Wednesday about the "serious public health emergency" caused by a "significant" increase in the spread of communities in the state's northwest region.
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers / The Daily Beast / Photos Getty
"On May 12, there were four COVID-19 positive patients in northwest Arkansas hospitals," said Birch Wright, chief operating officer and administrator of the facility. "Since then, the number of hospital admissions per week has doubled, and now we have more than 70 COVID-19 positive patients in local hospitals."
"It is important for our community to understand that we are no longer seeing hospitalizations simply because more tests are being done," added Wright. "We see more hospital stays because more people in our region are infected with the virus."
Last week, Wright said Washington Regional had increased the number of screening clinic tests by 170 percent and the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital by 350 percent. Critically ill virus patients were also affected, with more than 30 percent of those hospitalized requiring ventilation support.
The hospital opened a second inpatient ward on Tuesday to cope with the onslaught of "suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients," Wright noted, opening a separate clinic in Fayetteville to help meet the increased demand for screening and testing people who have no symptoms but think they have had exposure.
But even with these statistics, which come from the state health agency and local hospitals, Governor Asa Hutchinson said this week that the state will push ahead with the second phase of lifting its restrictions on businesses - such as restaurants, schools, and gyms - on Monday, June 15 (Although there has never been a complete ban, the state has slowed public gatherings.) This tension reflects the same gradual reopening in Texas, California, Florida, and Arizona, where the cases also increased on Friday.
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week when news across the country of record-breaking state caseloads spread across the country, “We still have a lot of work to do if we reopen America. ”He spoke directly to reporters in a telebriefing, the first CDC since March 14, to publish a set of guidelines for Americans to follow in everyday life, including wearing masks at the bank and washing hands in restaurants .
"It is still extremely important that we follow the recommendations of social distancing, hand washing, and wearing a face mask in public," said Redfield. "It is important that we remember that this situation is unprecedented and that the pandemic has not ended."
During the call, Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director of the Infectious Diseases Agency and COVID-19 response manager, describes the "various stages of transmission" as "occurring as they gradually ease efforts to curb the community", but vaguely, on the correlation between increasing infection rates and reduced movement restrictions.
Local health officials said it is difficult to know how much individual Arkansans will respect public health warnings.
Like Dr. Shane Speights, the medical director of the city of Jonesboro, emphasized that his county has only had one death, and most people do not know anyone who has gotten sick personally. This can affect their willingness to comply with social distance and other restrictions.
"I don't think it's an obvious failure to comply," Speights told The Daily Beast. "I think people want to do the best for their families. But ... imagine hitting your thumb with a hammer and only feeling the pain four weeks later."
So where are most of the state's cases? In the beginning, a large group was associated with an outbreak of the Church, even if their leaders did everything to prevent transmission. According to the State Department of Health's corona virus dashboard, about 19 percent of state cases are in prisons, while only 3.9 percent are in nursing homes and 7.7 percent are in healthcare.
In fact, the state's biggest outbreak was at a Lincoln County state prison, where at least 11 people in the Cummins unit had died of the coronavirus and inmates said they were afraid of an alleged lack of care.
Jennifer Dillaha, a state epidemiologist at the Arkansas Department of Health, told The Daily Beast on Thursday that the Lincoln County outbreak had "been treated and is now under control". However, Dillaha admitted that since then, the state has placed particular emphasis on gathering housing such as prisons, prisons, nursing homes, and summer camps while trying to deal with minor outbreaks in selected poultry factories.
"When we identify a case in both situations, we go in and test residents and staff and separate those who have the disease and those who do not," said Dillaha. "It worked very well for us."
Nevertheless, Dillaha agreed that despite a test strategy that she described as “aggressive”, more and more cases had occurred - and not only at the level at which access to tests had increased.
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In a demographic breakdown of his cases, the Arkansas Department of Health reported that 21 percent of all previous infections have occurred among the state's Hispanic population and 59 percent in people under the age of 45. Dillaha said officials could not determine whether these cases were epidemiologically linked to specific environments. They invited a team from the CDC to arrive on Saturday to "help us assess and investigate the situation so that we can better understand the steps we need to take to break the transmission chain," she added.
Dillaha hesitated to associate the increase in cases with a case, but noted that if she had to, "it would likely be a relaxation of restrictions."
"We didn't have an order to stay at home, but the governor introduced some restrictions, such as closed gyms, schools, and restaurants," said Dillaha. "Now we are loosening these restrictions and seeing an increase in cases."
Ultimately, Dr. Speights, who is also Dean of the Arkansas campus of the New York Institute of Technology College for Osteopathic Medicine in Jonesboro, observed Haseltine's observation that it could be more difficult for individual Arkansans to fully understand the risks of a public gathering. Until it's too late
"You don't always get sick right away," he continued. "Everything's fine until it's gone. You go through a few infections and then it suddenly explodes."
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