By Jacob Jackson
Arkansas COVID-19 hospitalizations have been falling slowly in recent weeks, but medical professionals still report concern about sufficient staffing, intensive care beds and rehabilitation for the thousands stricken by the delta variant of the virus.
Hospitalizations are down 22% between August 16, the all-time high, and September 11, according to ArkansasCovid.com analysis of data from the Arkansas Department of Health. Despite the decline, Arkansas Department of Health staff have scrambled to find ICU availability for patients in critical condition over the last few weeks, according to Greg Brown, Director of the Office of Preparedness and Emergency Response Systems at the Arkansas Department of Health.
“This whole secondary surge has been focused on ICU capacity,” Brown said in a phone interview. “As of Friday, 42 percent of ICU beds in the state had a COVID patient in them. That’s really high compared to the last time around.”
The shortage in ICU availability wasn’t simply a lack of beds, but a combination of several factors, Brown said. “There are beds that are out there, but there are no people to take care of patients. You need nurses, ancillary staff, and beds capable of holding COVID patients.”
The ADH worked quickly to expand ICU availability, using a portion of the $1.2 billion provided to the state by the American Rescue Plan to offer funds to hospitals for ICU expansion.
“As of today, we have five different hospital systems that have been funded, and we’ve been able to increase our ICU bed capacity significantly over the last 3 or 4 weeks,” Brown said. Brown estimated the current available ICU capacity to be around 20 percent greater than last week.
Overall, some 1,100 COVID-19 patients remain hospitalized, a level that was last seen in the first major virus surge in January. Still, recent trends suggest a moderation in the latest surge as statewide hospitalizations have decreased by 236 since August 24, when Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Arkansas ICU beds had reached maximum capacity.
The active case count has fallen since early August but still remains high at nearly 20,000 active cases statewide, also at levels not seen since January, according to health department data.
Recoveries and deaths remain consistently high across the state. As of Saturday, the seven day average for recoveries was 2,119, while the seven-day-average for deaths was 28, according to ArkansasCovid.com calculations of ADH data.
Recovery is not always the end of a patient’s difficulties with COVID-19. After being discharged, some patients go directly into inpatient rehabilitation for mobility and endurance training, said Claire Stone, a physical therapist and PRN at UAMS Outpatient Therapy and Encompass Inpatient Rehabilitation Hospital in Fayetteville.
“I have worked with patients who were seemingly healthy, working full time, taking care of their family, and then contracted COVID-19, had significant complications, and are now struggling just to get out of bed,” Stone said in an email interview.
Stone said that fortunately, the recent uptick in cases hasn’t impacted her duties much. “Right now I am working mostly in an outpatient setting, so fortunately, I have not experienced the added stress and exhaustion that many acute care setting therapists and employees are experiencing,” she said.
In light of this summer’s surge in cases, the Centers for Disease Control continues to recommend vaccination as the primary method of combating the virus. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged Americans to get vaccinated in a press briefing at the White House on Friday.
According to a new CDC study of summer cases, vaccination is highly effective in protecting against COVID-19, including the delta variant.
“Those who were unvaccinated were about four and a half times more likely to get COVID-19, over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die from the disease,” Walensky said at the White House.
Arkansas has shown some limited progress in vaccinations but the state continues to trail the country. As of Tuesday, 44% of the state’s entire population was vaccinated, according to the CDC. The median is 51%. That places Arkansas 41st among the 50 states in the percentage of the full population vaccinated.
The state Health Department also reports that since February 1, more than 90% of hospitalized patients in Arkansas have been unvaccinated, and unvaccinated individuals account for nearly 90% of COVID-19 deaths since February 1. The delta variant, which has taken Arkansas by storm, spelled the end of a period of relative calm earlier in the year. After March 15, the number of active cases in Arkansas remained consistently below 3,000 until the end of June, when the number of cases increased rapidly, peaking on Aug. 15 at nearly 26,000, according to ADH data.