Gov. Asa Hutchinson has scheduled one of his Community Conversations about COVID-19 for Wednesday, July 28, in Heber Springs at a yet to be determined venue. In response to Hutchinson’s recent visit to Batesville, approximately 25 leaders from Independence County which included civic servants, clergy, business owners and medical leaders gathered at White River Medical Center’s conference room to discuss the state of COVID-19 in the county.

Co-chairs Mark Landreth and Dr. J.D. Allen began Monday’s gathering in Independence County with a stern warning.

“It’s not going away,” Allen said on the present state. “We’ve got 30 patients as of [Monday]. I don’t know how many are on ventilators. Most of them, if not all of them are under 40 years of age, and none of them have been vaccinated.”

Allen predicted that the hospital may once again postpone elective in-patient procedures because the hospital is approaching maximum capacity.

Although that decision hasn’t been made, Allen said WRMC was “seriously considering” the move.

White River Health System CEO Gary Paxson, who confirmed that five of the 30 patients suffering from COVID-19 were on ventilators as of Monday, confirmed another statement that Allen opened with in the opening minutes of Monday’s meeting.

“Our staff are exhausted,” Paxson said. “We’ve been dealing with this since March of last year. They have had no break. There was a staffing shortage before COVID occurred. It’s very bad right now. We are having daily to get very creative to staff enough. We have census right now that rivals the dead of winter when there’s all kinds of bugs around.”

Paxson said it’s not just Batesville’s hospital that are feeling the strain.

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson tweeted over the weekend “The hospital @uamshealth is full. COVID-19 numbers increase every day. We are staffing inpatients in the ER and recovery room. No space for transfers. Running out of caregivers. Support health care workers. Mask up. Get vaxxed.”

“There is nowhere to send anybody,” Paxson said. “All of the hospitals in our state are at or near capacity. We are literally trying to do what we can do to keep our staff from literally burning out or being exhausted and protect our community. As much as we have to, as much as we hate it, we are trying to figure out ways to keep patients from outside our community here because just having people walk through the doors is a challenge. We are using every inch of our facility right now.”

Paxson also said it’s not just COVID that is straining the community’s medical resources, that he believed people “ignored healthcare needs” last year because of COVID.

“Now you have an exponential crisis of healthcare needs,” Paxson said. “This is starting to affect your everyday care. If someone has a heart attack or other healthcare needs, it’s a real issue of capacity for our organization and our entire community.”

Paxson added that the virus is “64 percent more transmissible within your own household than the last variant. It came on very fast. It’s very real and it’s here…if it hasn’t affected you yet, it is liable to very soon.”

Dr. Jeffery Angel also took the time to speak and said getting the message through was “hard.”

“I’ve got people in my clinic that respect me and Dr. Allen…and there are people in my clinic that aren’t vaccinated, members of my family that aren’t vaccinated” Angel said.

He added that nearly every independent medical association have recommended the COVID-19 vaccines.

The group decided that the first move is to get the word out and offer to go to citizens of the county with teams that include community servants such as firefighters, clergy and medical professionals to answer questions about the virus and the vaccine.

“We’ve got to talk to these people,” Landreth said. “Push the doctors out front. Let the doctors tell them the facts. Take the show on the road.”

One venue proposed was to local fire departments to gather citizens to disseminate information.

Before the meeting broke up, it was determined to move forward with meetings as soon as Tuesday and Wednesday to set up informational events.

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