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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. ( NIAID-RML via AP )

A nursing home in a small town in the Ozark Mountains has suddenly become a hot spot for the coronavirus.

The coronavirus has swept through the Newton County Nursing Home in Jasper, infecting 47 of the 51 patients and 25 health care workers, said Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association.

"It's really been tragic, taking a toll across the whole facility," she said.

Bunch said she didn't know how many of the covid-positive patients and staff members are symptomatic.

The nursing home accounts for 85% of all virus cases in the county, based on numbers released Friday by the Arkansas Department of Health.

The Newton County Nursing Home is the only such facility in the county, which has a population of 8,330.

A worker at the nursing home tested positive March 31, according to the Health Department, but that employee was sent home and the virus was kept at bay until last week, when the first patient tested positive.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

By July 24, the Health Department said, there were 50-60 positive cases at the nursing home, but exact numbers didn't show up in the department's "nursing homes and congregate settings" list until Thursday -- 50 positive patients and 27 positive health care workers. However, two of those workers have recovered.

Bunch said the number 50 for patients includes three people who had been living at the nursing home but died at hospitals.

"We don't know how the virus got in," she said.

Bunch said this type of rapid increase in cases has been seen at a few other Arkansas nursing homes.

"Newton County is not alone and not unique," she said. "This virus is just so highly contagious."

Bunch said the nursing home is unique, however, because it is owned and operated by the county. She said the facility hadn't reopened to visitors since a ban was instituted in March to keep the virus out.

The state allowed long-term facilities to reopen to visitors in July, albeit with conditions, including that no resident or worker tested positive in the previous 28 days.

Administrator Lisa Duncan, who has worked at the nursing home since 1996, has stayed at the facility 24 hours a day since July 24, when the outbreak was discovered, said Bunch. Two other administrators also have remained at the facility for an entire week, Bunch said.

"We're hoping they get a chance to go home for a little while this weekend," she said.

Rep. Keith Slape, R-Compton, whose district includes Newton County, said it's a mystery how the virus got into the nursing home after many precautions were taken.

"We're just trying to figure out how it breached the protocol," he said. "They were doing what they were supposed to. They were doing the testing. They were doing the protocol. But still, we're talking about a virus that knows no borders. It's challenging."

Throughout most of May and all of June, the Health Department's daily listing of "nursing homes and congregate settings" showed the Jasper nursing home with just two positive health care workers, both of whom had already recovered from the virus.

But on Monday, the number of infected workers at the nursing home jumped to 26, according to the Health Department list. Two of the 26 were listed as having recovered.

Since then, one more positive worker has been added to the list.

The nursing home had 115 employees and 10 volunteers in 2018, according to its tax records.

Danyelle McNeill, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said the agency depends on virus numbers reported from the nursing homes.

"The numbers in our reports are provisional and subject to change," she said in an email. "They can be subject to lag times in reporting and in lab corrections."

Jan Larson, mayor of Jasper, population 466, said the town has one of the best nursing homes in the state.

"The reputation of the people in that nursing home is excellent," said Larson. "I'm proud of our nursing home. I'm sure the nursing home is doing everything they can to figure it out."

Larson said the nursing home has been shorthanded. She said administrators were providing patient care in addition to doing their administrative duties.

"Everybody in the county either has a friend or a relative -- sometimes many -- who is in the nursing home or working there or both," said Larson. "So it's really tough on everybody."

Late Friday, the Health Department updated its online coronavirus count to show 91 total positive cases in Newton County. Nineteen people had recovered and three died. That means 85% of the county's total positive virus cases can be traced to the nursing home.

Larson said several businesses in Jasper and Harrison have sent water, soft drinks and food to the nursing home.

"I hear the Sonic donated Slushes, and the residents love those," she said.

Bunch said the nursing home has all the personal protective equipment it needs and plenty of food and water, but prayers are always appreciated.

"It takes an incredible emotional toll on everyone in that facility," she said.

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