Health leaders give warning as COVID-19 cases climb in Hot Springs area

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — A jump of some two dozen positive coronavirus infections in Garland County has public health leaders focusing a message on younger people.

“I have a lot of concern because we really had the virus under control here in Garland County,” said Dr. Gene Shelby, the local health officer on the sudden switch from a trickle of cases to the 27 active infections in the last two weeks.

The rise here is not as dramatic as the outbreaks in Northwest Arkansas, where there are clear distinctions on how the virus is spreading compared to the rest of the state. While poultry industry outbreaks have affected minority communities in places like Rogers and Springdale, the demographics of Hot Springs’ uptick paint a clear picture.

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“The bothersome thing was the age group from 25 to 44. Ten of the 27 cases were in the age group,” Dr. Shelby said. “And that’s definitely the age group that are out, active and around other people.”

Governor Hutchinson and the Arkansas Dept. of Health have picked up on the same trend and pointed it out during his daily briefing from the Hot Springs Convention Center Tuesday. 

When the young get infected there are pluses: Cases usually aren’t serious and sometimes even never show any symptoms. But that young invincibility as evidenced by large gatherings on the area lakes poses serious problems.

“I think we’re getting out too much and people aren’t doing the social distancing,” said Dr. Shelby. “Some people just don’t take the seriousness of this.”

Health officials can take heart that younger people tend not to need to be hospitalized. That’s reassuring to the medical centers in the area, but still require warnings.

“We have open ICU beds. We have open hospital beds to care for all the other medical needs of our patients,” said Dr. Douglas Ross, president of CHI St. Vincent in Hot Springs. “We are testing more, but these cases tell us that the virus is still in the community and is still spreading.”

The governor continues to take a laisez faire approach to ideas like directives to wear masks, but hinted Tuesday he could change that if it gets really bad.

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“I expect people to respond to information and education and make good decisions,” the Republican governor said. “I don’t think you have to respond by hopefully more extreme measures. Obviously, we continue to watch that and if we have to take some actions, we will.”