According to Paragould Mayor Mike Gaskill, Greene County Judge Rusty McMillon, and Arkansas Methodist Medical Center (AMMC), the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Greene County announced Friday, was not unexpected.
“We anticipated our first case due to the increased availability of testing,” McMillon read from a prepared statement. “At this time we want to encourage you to have a strong resolve to overcome this pandemic.”
He added that due to preparation that began in early January for the arrival of the virus, the county and city are in a strong position to limit the further spread of the disease. Nevertheless, he said, “this is a crisis and the Arkansas Department of Health and our medical community are taking the lead in our response,” McMillon said. “Our county and city are in a support capacity and are in full cooperation as such.”
The Arkansas Department of Health announced Monday that there are 174 active cases in the state.
Gaskill noted that prompt action to close city facilities has helped limit the spread of the illness. “It was more than a week ago that we started working within the city,” he said, “to make sure that the citizens would be okay.”
The mayor added the city will be checking temperatures of its employees every day to see if there is a possibility of COVID-19 presence. “And the whole idea behind this is to keep it as tight(ly controlled) as possible,” he said.
“Arkansas Methodist Medical Center has been preparing for this for several weeks,” added hospital Chief Executive Officer Barry Davis. “In times of disaster, whether it be manmade or natural, the hospital practices how we will react to certain situations in the community and in the county.”
Accordingly, he said AMMC’s response to the news of a COVID-19 case in the county has been to treat it as a manmade disaster. “We have implemented our incident command,” he said, adding that the task force set up in response is meeting on a daily basis. “We are putting into place measures based on what we know so far.”
Davis concluded by noting a difference between COVID-19 and a regular manmade disaster, “because the information is changing rapidly.”
Krystle Patterson, AMMC Director of Infection Control and the lead person for the AMMC task force, said the hospital had begun providing community education early on in the domestic spread of the disease. “As has been mentioned, we have been planning for this since at least January,” she said.
Patterson added that in the beginning, the hospital had started screening patients that were presenting symptoms of the disease. She also said the hospital undertook staff education as well as community education. (As previously reported, AMMC conducted a “lunch and learn” seminar on Feb. 6 regarding what was known about the virus at the time.)
“Some things that we have been implementing,” she said, “we are calling them ‘transmission prevention measures.’”
She added that chairs in waiting areas and the lobby have been moved apart to conform to “social distancing” as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Screening visitors at the entrances to the hospital is also talking place. “We are also asking about potential signs and symptoms,” Patterson said.
Patterson added that although there have been supply issues nationwide regarding personal protective equipment (PPE), the hospital is ready in that regard to receive COVID-19 patients. “We do have concerns going forward with PPE,” she said, “but we are reaching out and trying to obtain as much PPE as we can.”
Patterson also said the hospital is in the process of setting up a clinic for COVID-19 patients. “So do know that is coming,” she said.
Greene County Health Officer and AMMC Family Medicine Physician Dr. Tasha Sparks urged residents to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with either soap and water or a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol. She repeated the recommendation for people to cough or sneeze into their elbows rather than their hands, or use a tissue. “And following that, wash your hands,” she said. “Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.”
Sparks also urged people limit both contact with others and travel, even within the community, and especially internationally for the time being. “We also recommend that if you have any symptoms,” she said, “which can be fever, cough or shortness of breath, that you contact your family physician.”
Davis said that anyone who thinks they might have COVID-19 should visit either a doctor’s office or Urgent Care – “we recommend you not come to the ER” – and be prepared to answer a series of questions regarding symptoms, exposure potential and risk factors.
“Then they will test you for two things,” Davis said. “They will test you for common flu and for strep (throat). If either one of those are positive, then more than likely, you are not a COVID-19 carrier.”
Otherwise, the medical provider is to contact the state Department of Health for a recommendation regarding further testing. If the Department recommends more tests, the medical provider will swab the patient’s nostrils and throat, sending the samples to the Department, to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, or to an independent laboratory for confirmation of COVID-19. The problem, he said, is that it can take anywhere from three to five days for confirmation.
“We screen,” Davis said, “the state tests. It would be helpful if there were more testing sites.”
AMMC Foundation Director and Public Affairs Officer Tori Thompson said the hospital updates its website (https://myammc.org/) daily, and urged people to check it, the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov), the Arkansas Department of Health (https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/) and the Arkansas Hospital Association (https://www.arkhospitals.org/).
“Generally,” Patterson concluded, “there’s no reason to panic. Take precautions, be concerned, but don’t panic. We’ll get through this.”