Although COVID-19 infections appear on the decline, hospitals in the state remain filled with patients as health care workers enter their second year battling the virus.
And while hospital personnel have learned by experience the logistics of treating a widespread pandemic, omicron, the latest variant, poses new problems because of its high contagion rate.
The omicron variant — the third strand of the virus that followed the original variant in March 2020 and then the delta variant — is less severe than the others, medical personnel say. However, people are five times as likely to become infected with it. As a result, hospital beds remain at near capacity.
“We’ve seen an overall increase in the total number of people with COVID-19 who have been admitted to the hospital during the surge of the omicron variant because it is much more transmissible than the delta variant,” said Jennifer Dillaha, the Arkansas Department of Health Medical Director.
“We encounter it on a daily basis,” added Mitchell Nail, media relations manager for St. Bernards Healthcare in Jonesboro. “But we can still protect ourselves.”
The New York Times, which lists daily COVID infection rates for each county in the country, considers Craighead County to be a “hotspot” for infections.
At one point in January, the county saw the highest infection rate in the state. On Jan. 12, Craighead County reported 665 new cases of Omicron. The rate is beginning to decline; on Jan. 31, new cases reported totalled 385.
“There’s a multitude of factors in terms of why Craighead County has seen such an increase,” said Shane Speights, the dean of the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University. “Jonesboro is a high-populated area, there are lower vaccination rates here than elsewhere, and there’s little mask wearing in northeast Arkansas.”
With more hospital beds filled with virus patients, it’s difficult to sustain the level of care for other patients, said Sam Lynd, the CEO of NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro.
“This presents caustic challenges to the health care system,” Lynd said.
“It may not be as severe as delta,” said NEA pulmonologist Keith Criner. “But it makes up for it in volume. We still have folks dying with this. It is serious.”
Because of the elevated rate of contagion with omicron, hospitals have had to change the structure of caring for non-infected, everyday patients by creating separate areas for treatment, including maternity wards.
“It’s supposed to be a happy time,” Nail said. “But now we have mothers in isolation areas. You can’t just have staff members see a COVID patient and then see a non-COVID patient.”
Dillaha said health workers adapted to the variants, learning about making modifications to medical facilities and hiring additional staff to work additional shifts.
The state health department also contracted with outside vendors, she said, to interview those who tested positive, inform close contacts of exposure and provide instructions for quarantining.
“There’s no cookie-cutter approach,” Lynd said. “We offer a number of support programs for our workers, we give them extra pay, and in some cases, have them work from home.”
Lynd said he feels his hospital responded quickly when the first virus became widespread in Craighead County.
“We were better prepared than most hospitals in the region or even the country,” he said. ‘We deployed a system to care for COVID and non-COVID patients, and we had the resources to keep staff from getting sick.”
Unlike other medical facilities, NEA Baptist did not layoff any health care workers, he said.
Speights said he expected the omicron variant to peak by the end of January and early February.
“I feel that we’re on the good side,” he said. “Omicron spiked, and it will drop quickly. There are a couple of new variants, but they don’t seem to be as infectious as omicron. Will it be like a cold or stronger?”
Speights added that he expects some form of the virus to be around for a long while.
“We’re slowly getting more tools and an arsenal to fight this,” said Stephen Woodruff, a physician of internal medicine with NEA Baptist. “It’s not easy, but we’ve learned a huge amount in the last 24 months.”