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WASHINGTON -- The coronavirus is going to put an enormous strain on the nation's medical system, 3rd District congressional candidate Celeste Williams is warning.

Decisive action now can help slow the pandemic's spread in Northwest Arkansas, but there's no time to waste, the Bella Vista-area Democrat said in a telephone interview last week.

"This is going to increase exponentially over the next couple of weeks, so every day is an opportunity to slow it down," Williams, a family nurse practitioner, said.

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While the number of confirmed cases in the state is still relatively low, it won't stay that way for long, she predicted.

Celeste Williams is running for Congress in NWArkansas against Rep. Steve Womack. Photo March 2020 in DC. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank Lockwood)

"I think that we are absolutely facing an exponential spread of the virus. I think that what we have done in Arkansas and throughout the community is exactly the right thing to encourage people to stay at home [and] practice social distancing," she said. "One of the benefits of doing that is that we hopefully are able to slow it enough to prevent our health care system, our hospitals, from being overrun by the number of people who will be ill."

Williams, who has worked in health care for two decades, expressed confidence that medical professionals will rise to the challenge, despite the risks.

"We're the ones who are going to be seeing patients in clinics, in the emergency department, throughout the hospital, so we're right there on the front lines," she said.

If the infection curve is too steep, the nation's health care system could be pushed to the limit, she said.

Shortages of space, equipment and staff could develop, she said.

"We already have a health care system that functions in a very lean manner, meaning the least amount of staff possible to care for the number of patients we have," she said.

Not all of them will be available if there's a sharp spike in the number of coronavirus cases, she noted.

"We're going to have nurses and doctors that are going to get this [virus], which is going to further stress our system, which is what we're trying to avoid right now," she said. "[That's] why it's so crucial that we are able to ramp up testing in the community."

Williams, a graduate of Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla., and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers.

Two weeks ago, she was in Washington for a health care conference and a few campaign-related meetings.

Now she's back in Benton County, but unable to engage in traditional politics.

"For public health reasons, we're suspending all campaign events," she said. Instead, she's reaching out to voters via social media.

The coronavirus has revealed problems with the status quo, she said.

"I think this pandemic highlights the weaknesses in our communities, such as access to health care and financial stability of families," she said.

Health care is an issue Williams has frequently highlighted. Her husband, Kirk, is an emergency room nurse; they have four children.

Many Americans are one illness away from economic disaster, she noted during her Washington visit last week.

"I don't think you should go broke just because you get sick," she said.

"In a country where we have so much, we need to make sure that we are using the resources we have appropriately so that we can build a better society where people have access to health care, regardless of financial means," she said.

Since winning the Republican primary in 2010, Womack has faced only minimal opposition. In 2012, 2014 and 2016, the Democratic Party didn't even field a challenger.

This year, he faces Williams as well as a Libertarian, Michael Kalagias of Rogers.

Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray last week called Williams "a great human being," and predicted she would represent Northwest Arkansas well, if elected.

"Celeste brings compassion and real-world experience, not only in health care, but as a mom, and I think we could use that in Washington," he said.

In an email, a spokeswoman for the Womack campaign said the congressman is focused on "ensuring the health and safety of Arkansans," noting Womack's support for legislation to fund coronavirus testing and economic relief.

"There will be plenty of time for political debate on a range of issues in the future -- but right now we must concentrate on building on the actions already taken to address additional challenges head on and support American families, workers, and businesses," she said.

SundayMonday on 03/23/2020

Print Headline: Congressional hopeful sees time to slow sickness


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