By Mary Hennigan and Rachell Sanchez-Smith
It’s a question asked widely throughout Arkansas: why are the COVID-19 cases falling?
Many experts are as puzzled as the rest of us.
“We don’t have a full explanation,” said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Arkansas Department of Health chief medical officer. “There are things about the spread of this illness and how it behaves that we don’t understand yet.”
Even after 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has remained unpredictable, Dr. Dillaha said. Active case numbers in Arkansas have been cut in half this month to 10,858 cases on Sept. 28 from 22,814 on Sept. 1, according to the ADH. This trend comes even though Arkansas lags the nation, with just 45% of its total population fully vaccinated. Despite large gatherings of people, whether in schools, at Razorback football games or Labor Day parties, cases have been on a steady decline in Arkansas since mid-August.
The pandemic seems to be following a “wave pattern,” according to the Sept. 13 University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences COVID-19 forecast report. The report predicts a fall in new daily cases in the coming weeks, from 2,013 on Sept. 13 to 1,300 on Oct. 12. In addition, hospitalizations are set to drop from 70 new daily admissions to 40 through Sept. 28.
While hospitals aren’t completely full as they were in August, staff has continued to see a constant number of admissions. As of Sept. 25, Arkansas’s Northeast region had the highest rate of COVID-19 patients at 17 per 100 beds, according to an ArkansasCovid analysis of state health department data.
“Our region has not decreased as quickly as the other part of the state,” said Mitchell Nail, media relations manager for St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro. “So that’s a little concerning.”
Lately, new daily patient admissions at St. Bernards have ranged from 10 to 15, regardless of the varying number of statewide illnesses, Nail said. However, by mid-September, St. Bernards set a one-day admission record of 22 patients, Nail said.
Additionally, the COVID-19 intensive care unit figures have continuously been in the mid-20s, and reached as high as 30 patients as of Sept. 27, Nail said. Nearly 80% of the patients were on ventilators, but those figures have dipped below half recently.
This constant pandemic-related stress on the staff has brought change to the hospital’s environment, including mental health resources and therapy dog programs, he said. The staff form significant relationships and are personally affected when a patient dies.
“They get invested in these patients, they come to know and love them,” Nail said. “They come to know about their families. It gets to a point where you can have almost a numbing effect.”
St. Bernards had a “particularly hard month,” with 42 deaths in September alone, Nail said. Nearly 98% of the deaths at St. Bernards involved unvaccinated patients, he added. Statewide deaths exceeded 600, according to the ADH.
As the virus continues to infect hundreds daily in Arkansas, residents remain reluctant to receive a vaccine, said Dr. Dillaha of the state health department. She said she is concerned about a subsequent peak of cases in the winter, and the best way to protect against COVID-19 is through vaccination.
“With vaccine immunity, we don’t have long-term clarity of how long the protection provided by the vaccines lasts,” she said. “But they do have an advantage in that the risk of developing complications from a vaccine are much, much lower than the risk of developing complications from getting COVID-19 itself.”
The state ranks 41st for the fully vaccinated percentage in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control data from Sept. 27. Sixteen of Arkansas’s 75 counties have more than half of their residents fully vaccinated.
“I want people to know that the vaccines truly are safe, and they truly do work,” Dillaha said.