Northwest Arkansas covid hospitalizations increase by 58%

Buttons for people who receive the covid-19 vaccine on a table Wednesday May 26, 2021 at the Rogers Activity Center.Visit and (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

Northwest Arkansas has seen a 58% increase in the number of hospitalized covid-19 patients over the past two weeks, according to data from the Northwest Arkansas Council.

The council reported 79 hospitalized patients Thursday, up from 50 patients Dec. 3 and 62 patients Dec. 10. The all-time high was 173 patients Aug. 11; the low since then was 31 hospitalizations Nov. 5.

In the River Valley, hospitalizations increased a combined 82.9% since Dec. 3.

Mercy Fort Smith had 21 hospitalized covid-19 patients Friday, including 10 patients in intensive care units, according to spokeswoman Mardi Taylor. In comparison, 16 were hospitalized Dec. 3.

Baptist Health's hospitals in Fort Smith and Van Buren had a combined 43 patients with covid-19 -- up from 19 on Dec. 3 -- including 17 in covid-19 critical care units and eight on ventilators, according to spokeswoman Alicia Agent.

Statewide, the number of hospitalized cases increased 24% over the last two weeks, from 433 on Dec. 3, to 471 Dec. 10 and 538 Friday, according to Arkansas Department of Health data.

Although hospitalizations in Northwest Arkansas are up, they are not as high as this time last year, said Dr. Marti Sharkey, Fayetteville public health officer. Local hospitals were caring for 107 covid-19 patients on Dec. 14, 2020, officials reported at the time.

Health officials are seeing a disconnect between the number of covid-19 cases and the number of hospitalizations, according to Sharkey.

Benton, Washington, Crawford and Sebastian counties reported a combined 286 new cases Friday, up only 1% from 283 cases Dec. 3 and 12.6% from 254 cases Dec. 10, according to the Department of Health.

Statewide, there were 1,111 new cases Friday, up 1.6% from 1,093 cases Dec. 10 and down 5.4% from 1,174 Dec. 3.

"There has to be more cases out there than we have based on the degree of hospitalizations," Sharkey said.

Either not as many people are getting tested or they are testing at home and not reporting their cases to the Arkansas Department of Health, she said. It is unlikely the virus circulating the area is more severe, causing a higher percentage of hospitalizations than in the past, because health officials are not seeing an increase in the severity of illness in hospitalized patients, she said.

There has also been a high number of intensive care unit admissions in Northwest Arkansas, including from covid-19 and other causes, she said.

On Friday, 123 Northwest Arkansas patients were in ICU, the same as last week, according to the Northwest Arkansas Council. The all-time high was 140 patients in ICU on Sept. 8.

Any time Northwest Arkansas has more than 100 patients in ICU, it strains the local health care system, Sharkey said.

Arkansas reported its first case of omicron Friday. At least 36 other states have reported finding the variant, including neighboring states Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New information about the variant this week reinforces the idea that omicron is highly transmissible, Sharkey said. Health officials think omicron may cause a milder illness than other variants, but that's still uncertain, she said.

Studies are showing that two Pfizer vaccines provide 30% protection against omicron, but a booster shot increases the protection into the 90% range, Sharkey said.

Last week, teenagers over the age of 16 became eligible for a Pfizer booster shot. Sharkey, who is also a pediatrician, encouraged parents to get their teens vaccinated because getting them protected will decrease community spread.

Hospital response

Area hospitals are monitoring the situation but have not made any changes to visitor policies, which were relaxed in November to allow two visitors at a time for noncovid patients during extended hours.

Washington Regional officials are concerned about the increasing number of covid-19 patients that require hospitalization in the community, said spokeswoman Natalie Hardin.

Currently the hospital's gift shop and cafeteria are open, she said. The hospital will continue to monitor the situation and make changes if and when they are necessary, she said.

Mercy has not changed its visitor policies recently, Taylor said. Leaders continue to monitor local covid-19 patient numbers and make decisions to protect patients, co-workers and visitors, she said.

Northwest Health has not made any changes since Nov. 1, said spokeswoman Abby Davenport. Officials will adjust policies as needed in response to the latest CDC recommendations, she said.

"We have remained steadfast in our policies throughout the pandemic for the safety of our patients, physicians and staff members," said Baptist Health region President Kim Miller.

Healthy holidays

More than 61% of the eligible population in Benton County is partially or fully vaccinated, and 13.6% have received a booster shot, according to the Department of Health. In Washington County, 65.5% of the population is fully or partially vaccinated and 12.6% have received a booster.

Numbers are slightly lower in the River Valley. In Sebastian County, 54.9% of the population is partially or fully vaccinated, and 10.2% have received a booster. In Crawford County, 51.7% of the population is partially or fully vaccinated, and 10.2% have received a booster.

Sharkey said she is encouraged by the number of people getting booster shots and the number of people getting their first shots.

Getting vaccinated is the first, second and third thing people should do to prepare for safe holiday gatherings, Sharkey said. People should also use home testing kits before events to ensure they don't spread the virus, she said.

"If you test yourself before you go, and you're fully vaccinated, you know you can go and be around others," she said. "Encourage those you are gathering with to do the same."

It is important for people who do test positive to report the results to the health department for contact tracing, Sharkey said. People who are at risk for complications should also contact their doctor because treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies, can have a significant impact if administered within the first few days, she said.

Staying safe

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Tips for a safe, healthy holiday season:

Get a covid-19 vaccine and booster.

• With the emergence of the highly transmissible omicron variant, consider getting tested before holiday events.

Establish ground rules and vaccine expectations before gathering. If sick, don’t host or attend.

Mask up and maintain a 6-foot distance inside public settings, especially when you’re likely among unvaccinated people.

Gather outdoors if weather permits. Increase indoor ventilation by opening windows.

Wash hands before eating or serving.

If not vaccinated or boosted, delay travel.

Source: Arkansas Center for Health Improvement