Members of the Fayetteville Board of Health expressed reasons for “cautious optimism” with the recent decline in COVID-19 cases in Arkansas and across the country.
City Public Health Officer Marti Sharkey told the group on Wednesday there are about 895 active cases of COVID-19 in Washington County this week, the lowest number recorded since well before Thanksgiving.
Sharkey also noted that deaths from the virus have also declined in recent weeks, noting that only 12 Washington County residents have died in February thus far as opposed to 28 deaths recorded in the first 10 days of last month.
Hospitalizations are also improving in the NWA region.
Lenny Whiteman, Vice President of Managed Care at Washington Regional said that only about 52 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 across Northwest Arkansas, which is roughly half the amount that were seen just a few weeks ago. The hospital is still seeing a high volume of “very sick” non-COVID patients, however he said, many of whom have been transferred from neighboring areas.
The decrease in cases locally mirrors trends seen nationally in recent weeks. The NY Times COVID tracker today is showing a 36% decrease in cases over 14 days ago today, with deaths down 22% nationally.
Sharkey said it is difficult to pin down exactly what is leading to the reduction in cases recently. Her best guest, she said, was a combination of natural immunity coming from people who have had the virus combined with an increase in those who have received a vaccine in the state, along with improved behavior on masking and social distancing in recent weeks.
Thus far, just over 10% of the state’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, with a little over 3% of the population receiving the full two doses. But the state has also reported more than 300,000 cases of the virus since the pandemic began, also roughly 10% of the population, which many experts say is a considerable undercount of those who may have actually had the virus.
Whiteman said that locally, testing is down a bit, as are calls to the COVID screening hotline. Others involved in testing locally, including Huda Sharaf with the Pat Walker Medical Center and Richard Taffner with the Arkansas Department of Health, reported similar decreases.
Sharkey said that it doesn’t appear that the recent decrease in cases are a direct result of reduced testing, however.
“Our percent positive has been trending down as well, so I think it’s good news,” she said with her fingers visibly crossed on screen.
She, and other experts speaking Wednesday at the meeting, however cautioned that the reduction in cases should not lead to complacency. New, more contageious variants of the disease that have been detected in the US are still a concern.
“Vaccines, masks, and managing expectations on the vaccine are still important messages,” she said. “We are seeing the pandemic start to shrink, if it weren’t for fear of the variants. We are having to temper expectations, continue the message to mask, social distance, washing hands, waiting patiently for vaccine.
“The waiting patiently is what we are tired of doing, but it is what we must do,” she said.