Fort Smith area COVID-19 cases on the rise, ‘higher proportion’ in ICU


With only just over a quarter of the population over 12 vaccinated in Sebastian County, the active number of COVID-19 cases in the area is rivaling what it was last year at this time – except with more severe cases.

Though the number of new cases had been steadily declining since vaccinations became more readily available to everyone over 12, COVID cases are back on the rise.

Arkansas is in the midst of a COVID-19 surge due to the much more contagious Delta variant, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson has gone on record saying one variable — a lack of residents getting vaccinated — is causing the spike in numbers. Arkansas ranks as one of the lowest in terms of vaccinations and that has led to thousands of new cases and 669 people hospitalized statewide as of Thursday, according to information on the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) website. That number was an increase of 22 over Wednesday.

Friday in Fort Smith, there were 48 total COVID patients in the two Fort Smith hospitals – Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Mercy Fort Smith – with 20 of those in ICU and eight on ventilators, said Rep. Dr. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood. Johnson is also the medical director for Fort Smith EMS and Southwest EMS and a practicing emergency room physician.

“That’s almost exactly the same as our COVID numbers a year ago at this time, only a higher proportion are requiring ICU care,” Johnson said.

There were 19 COVID patients in Fort Smith hospitals, June 24, 2020; nine of those patients were on ventilators.

On July 30 last year, Sebastian County had 391 active COVID cases reported. Friday, the county had 241 active cases. At the end of July 2020, Crawford County had 106 active cases. Friday, the ADH reported Crawford County had 105 active cases.

While 40% of the population over 12 in the state is fully vaccinated, only 26.1% of those 12 and older in Sebastian County are fully vaccinated and only 29.2% of those 12 and older in Crawford County are fully vaccinated.

“Almost 75% in Sebastian County are unvaccinated. I understand there is a percentage of those who are philosophically opposed to vaccinations, and I can respect that decision. But I think there is a larger percentage who want to get the vaccination who just haven’t yet. For whatever reason, they have waited. Now is the time to get the vaccination,” Johnson said.

While the numbers of those hospitalized are about the same as they were last year at this time, last year area hospitals were experiencing a low volume of patients coming into the ER and hospitals, which made it easier to manage the COVID patients, he said.

“Take away COVID, and we’re having an unprecedentedly busy summer as it relates to ER/hospital volumes. So even though COVID numbers are the same as last year, the pressure on hospital capacity is much greater. Our hospitals are as full now of total patients as at any point in the pandemic,” Johnson said.

He attributed the increase in volume of patients at the hospital to people being out and about and being around more and more people. That allows the typical “transmittable diseases” the opportunity to spread and lead to more hospitalizations. That increase is leading to more and more strain on hospitals throughout the state.

Vaccinations can help. Johnson reiterated that 98% of all COVID hospitalizations this year are of unvaccinated patients. That remaining 2% are not all patients who were hospitalized from COVID. Most are from patients hospitalized for another reason, such as a stroke, who test positive for COVID because hospitals are testing all patients admitted to the hospital for the virus, he said.

“If we could get the vaccination rate up to 50% we could see a vast drop in numbers,” Johnson said.

Though there is still a chance that those vaccinated can still contract the virus, the chance is low, he said. The Pfizer vaccine has a 95% efficacy rate. The Moderna has a rate of 92%.

“That means there’s a 5%-10% chance you’ll still get COVID. But virtually none of those have serious symptoms,” Johnson said.

The key isn’t for people to hear from government officials about the need to be vaccinated. The key, Johnson said, is for those vaccinated to talk to their loved ones about the vaccine, their experience and the risk versus the benefits.

“People need to have frank discussions with their loved ones. We don’t need a bunch of people arguing with other people. We need individual discussions by people who have gotten it with their close friends and loved ones,” Johnson said. “This is conversation that needs to be happening.”

Vaccinations are available at almost every pharmacy and at the county health departments, Johnson said. The Arkansas Foundation of Medical Care will host a vaccination event from noon to 6 p.m. July 27 at Central Mall in Fort Smith. The Pfizer vaccine will be administered. Because Pfizer requires two doses, the second will be given at an event Aug. 17 at Central Mall.

“If you have questions or concerns about the vaccine, talk to someone you trust who has had the vaccine or to a trusted medical professional,” Johnson said.