A federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program will be providing increased testing capacity in Northwest Arkansas starting Feb. 2, the Northwest Arkansas Council announced Friday.
Meanwhile, covid-19 hospitalizations in the region are nearing the all-time high set in August and covid-19 hospitalizations across the state hit record numbers four days in a row this week. The numbers of new covid-19 cases in Northwest Arkansas topped 2,000 two days in a row and the state set a record of 14,494 new cases Wednesday.
The Northwest Arkansas Council applied for the Increasing Community Access program through the Arkansas Department of Health and CDC, according to Ryan Cork, executive director of the council's Health Care Transformation Division.
The drive-through testing site will be at the Washington County Fairgrounds for 21 days and will have the capacity to test up to 1,000 people a day, he said. The program will provide polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at no cost to residents.
The testing site will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m and the council will post a link for registration on its website, Cork said.
Cork hopes the site will take some of the pressure off local health care systems. It will also offer people the opportunity to get a PCR test in the comfort of their own car, he said.
There were 1,561 new cases of covid-19 in Benton and Washington counties on Friday. The record of 2,399 new cases in the two-county area was set Jan. 13.
In the River Valley, Sebastian and Crawford counties reported 566 new cases Friday, down from 673 a week ago, according to the Department of Health.
A total of 13,073 covid-19 cases were reported in Arkansas on Friday, according to the Department of Health.
Benton, Washington, Crawford and Sebastian counties saw 17 covid-related deaths this week for a total of 1,870 since the pandemic began, according to the Department of Health.
Area hospitals were caring for 166 covid-19 patients Thursday and 155 patients Friday, up from 139 a week ago, according to the Northwest Arkansas Council. The peak during the January 2021 surge was 140 patients; the all-time high was 173 patients in August.
Seventy-two percent of the hospitalized patients in Northwest Arkansas were unvaccinated, according to Nate Green, council spokesman.
The state set records for the number of covid-19 hospitalizations with 1,487 patients Tuesday, 1,600 Wednesday, 1,640 Thursday and 1,658 Friday. The previous record of 1,459 patients was set Aug. 16 during the delta variant surge.
However, the numbers of patients on ventilators and in intensive care units in Northwest Arkansas have remained below previous records.
In Northwest Arkansas, 115 patients were in ICU Friday, down from the all-time high of 140 set Sept. 8, according to the council. Forty ventilators were in use, compared to the record 87 on Sept. 2. The numbers include both patients with covid-19 and those with other medical needs.
The River Valley also saw an increase in hospitalizations this week. Baptist Health reported a total of 81 hospitalized covid-19 patients Friday, up from 53 last week, according to spokesperson Alicia Agent.
Mercy Fort Smith had 58 hospitalized patients Friday -- up from 37 last week -- with 15 in ICU, said spokeswoman Mardi Taylor.
Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, Baptist Health Van Buren, and Mercy hospitals in Fort Smith and Rogers were among 11 hospitals across the state to receive $50.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to open covid-19 hospital beds.
Mercy Hospital in Rogers received $4.05 million to open 18 additional beds for 30 days and Mercy Fort Smith received $3.6 million to open 16 beds for 45 days, according to the Department of Health's request for funding.
The extra staffed beds opened this week, Taylor said.
Mercy hospitals are seeing an overall increase in admissions compared to previous surges, Taylor said. While hospital staff continue to do their best to give all patients quality care, the continued increase in covid-19 patients, along with other critically ill patients, has left Mercy very few empty hospital beds, she said.
In response, Mercy leaders created a staffing plan to provide the necessary number of nurses in the newly opened covid rooms that includes paid incentives for hospital and clinic nurses who take extra shifts outside their normal working hours, Taylor said. In addition, Mercy has a Helping Hands program that allows non-clinical co-workers to assist with jobs such as stocking and refreshing supplies, transporting patients and other daily care activities, she said.
The Mercy workforce has felt the strain of the highly contagious omicron variant at times, Taylor said. Each department and clinic has been affected differently, though staffing shortages have forced some appointment changes, she said. Mercy's telehealth services have proven to be an essential part of patient care, especially for those who are immunocompromised, she said.
Baptist Health Van Buren received $4.41 million to add 35 hospital beds for 45 days, according to the Department of Health request.
The beds are open and operational, said Kim Smith, region president for Baptist Health Fort Smith and Van Buren.
While the omicron variant may cause less critical illness initially, Baptist Health physicians have seen that patients may experience some complications seven to 10 days after diagnosis, she said.
Washington Regional received $1.44 million to add eight hospital beds for 45 days, according to the Department of Health request.
Those beds were opened last week and were immediately filled, according to a statement from the hospital. Since then, even more beds have been opened for covid-19 patients in need of hospitalization, it states.
While the American Rescue funds helped allow the hospital to provide financial incentives to staff to expand capacity, the current surge is the most significant the hospital has seen since the beginning of the pandemic. The omicron variant appears to result in less severe illness than delta, but it has created a substantial strain because of the sheer number of cases, according to Washington Regional's statement.
"Right now, we have limited ICU and inpatient beds available," the hospital stated. "Our hospital is full at this point, so that it's common for patients (covid and non-covid) to have to wait in our emergency department for an extended period of time for an open bed."
Washington Regional is experiencing staffing shortages throughout its system, according to the statement. The hospital is seeing increased demand for care in all areas at the same time a large number of staff members are out of work due to seasonal illness, covid-19 illness and exposure, it states.
In the first two weeks of January, the hospital has already had twice as many team members out as it did throughout August. Team members also face challenges such as lack of available child care and remote learning for their children as schools have paused in person education, according to the statement.
To manage the staffing situation, Washington Regional used its covid-19 surge plan to move team members to areas of greatest need. Telehealth visits also allow providers to continue caring for our community. Washington Regional providers have completed more than 100,000 telemedicine visits.
Washington Regional asked for support from the community to reduce the number of patients needing hospitalization through vaccination, staying home when sick, wearing masks, avoiding crowds, social distancing and hand washing.
"There is an increasing trend of vaccinated members of our community requiring hospitalization," the hospital states. "We believe that it is best practice to combine vaccination and masking to protect our workers and community."
New covid-19 cases in Benton and Washington counties:
• Monday: 309
• Tuesday: 742
• Wednesday: 2,342
• Thursday: 2,051
• Friday: 1,561
Source: Northwest Arkansas Council