Craighead County preps for COVID-19

Friday, March 13, 2020

As Arkansas State University implements a plan to keep students away from campus, city and county officials in Craighead County rush to safeguard residents from the outbreak of coronavirus COVID-19.

As of Friday morning, several closures had been ordered by local leaders while the county's two hospitals announced plans to handle an influx of infected patients and prevent spread of the virus at each hospital's campus and remote locations.

Meanwhile, as schools throughout the nation close due to the virus, local public schools are working with the state to determine if closures are deemed necessary.

While announcing the number of COVID-19 patients in Arkansas had risen from one to six on Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared a state of emergency for the state. Within the governor's proclamation is a stipulation that "the Secretary of Health, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, shall have sole authority to close public school campuses throughout the state for reasons related to COVID-19."

Hutchinson also ordered state officials to balance school safety with ongoing education provided to Arkansas' roughly half a million students in more than 1,000 schools.

"It is essential that our schools and educational institutions remain operational in the most practical manner possible without jeopardizing public safety," the governor's emergency declaration stated.

The Arkansas Department of Education announced it is working with the department's business partners to "offer digital learning options for school closure" should COVID-19 lead to schools closing in the coming days.

Hours after notifying students and staff that Arkansas State University had been considering options to remove students from the Jonesboro campus amid the outbreak, university chancellor Kelly Damphouse on Thursday announced a plan to temporarily move instruction to an online format, rather than the customary classroom setting. Damphouse added that the university will remain open through the end of the semester in May.

However, instruction will be offered online during a trial period next week before resuming after the institution's spring break the following week.

"We will officially shift all classroom delivery to online with the resumption of class on Monday, March 30," Damphouse announced. "Online class delivery will continue for at least two weeks until Monday, April 13."

The online delivery will be used next Tuesday and Wednesday prior to spring break.

At the same time, ASU is attempting to ensure students and professors maintain lines of communication should the virus lead to students missing classes due to related illnesses.

"The university is encouraging all faculty to prepare for students who may not be in class due to coronavirus illness and to have ways to communicate via e-mail and to assign and receive assignments via [online delivery program] Blackboard and e-mail," read a statement from the university earlier this week.

Damphouse also said most on-campus events March 13 through at least April 13 will be postponed or canceled. He also encouraged students leaving Jonesboro for spring break to prepare for situations that delay a return to the university.

"If you are going home for spring break, I highly recommend you take course materials and devices with you in case it is not possible for you to return to campus after the break," Damphouse said in an e-mail to students. "Campus will remain open during that entire period, including residence halls, and cafeteria."

While Damphouse outlined the steps to keep the university functioning, the Arkansas State University athletic department announced Thursday it had suspended all athletic competitions and events indefinitely due to concern over the virus.

“We have been in communication with the Sun Belt Conference, my AD colleagues and our CEOs in order to take appropriate measures to ensure the well-being of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans during this time,” said ASU athletics director Terry Mohajir. “This is obviously a very fluid situation, so we will continue to consult with the appropriate authorities in order to take the best course of action moving forward.”

Mohajir also announced cancellation of the Arkansas State University spring football game that had been scheduled for next week.

Craighead County's two hospitals also announced plans this week to combat the outbreak. St. Bernards Hospital has launched a free "virtual care service" mobile app local residents may utilize to receive care and advice should they believe they have been infected with the coronavirus.

According to the statement from the hospital annnouncing the mobile app, the normal $49 fee is waived for those inquiring about COVID-19 illness.

John Lieblong, vice president of healthcare at St. Bernards, said the organization decided to offer the free service in order to help prevent public exposure of the virus.

According to a press release announcing the service, "Lieblong said patients will enter a series of medical information before seeing a screen with the option to enter the coupon code 'COVID,' waiving the service’s normal $49 fee. During the virtual visit with a St. Bernards medical professional, patients will receive instructions where to go to receive medical attention and COVID-19 testing if necessary."

The announcement further stated patients using the service for other health concerns will still pay the $49 fee. "Should they, however, need additional care at a St. Bernards urgent care facility, they will only pay for the urgent care visit," the statement read.

The mobile app may be found by searching for "St. Bernards Go" in the Apple product iOS app store or the Google Play store for Android devices.

"In addition, all St. Bernards Go services are available through a computer equipped with a webcam and microphone at The service’s normal operating hours are Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.," according to the announcement.

In addition to the mobile app, St Bernards has announced implementation of an emergency response plan to minimize spread of the coronavirus.

"Procedures are in place to facilitate early identification of patients at risk for COVID-19 so they can receive prompt treatment and quickly be isololated from other patients and visitors to reduce the risk of transmission," said St. Bernards medical center vice president of medical affairs Dr. Kasey Holder.

Every entry point to the hospital now has screenings "to examine travel history and signs or symptoms of resliratory illness," the hospital annouced, adding that "these symptoms may include fever, shortness of breath and coughing."

Holder said the organization maintains communication with state, federal and world health organizations to ensure proper protocols are followed amid the changing circumstances of the virus' spread.

Baptist Memorial, parent company of NEA Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, has announced following treatment of a COVID-19 infected patient at one of its Memphis-area hospitals, plans have been implemented to screen visitors to all facilities.

Screening includes "recent travel to high-risk areas, close contact with comfirmed COVID-19 patients and fever and flu-like symptoms," according to an announcement by the hospital group.

Locally, Jonesboro's NEA Hospital recommended those who believe they have been exposed to the virus should not visit a doctor's office unless ordered to do so by a physician. Also, residents with symptoms are encouraged to call the hospital before visiting to report symptoms, recent travel and potential exposure before going to the hospital.

Jonesboro mayor Harold Perrin announced he had closed all senior and community centers "immediately for at least a week."

The mayor said the city and county are working with state and federal officials for guidance on how to best proceed with plans to prevent further spread of the virus.

Perrin emphasized the need to confirm information found online or in rumor circles by checking official local government Web sites and offices.

The mayor said decisions are made and announced publicly "to dispel the false rumors that can cause panic and distraction, rather than allowing people to focus on the simple measures that will see us through this period safely and responsibly."

Perrin urged churches and other local groups of large numbers of individuals to keep updated on federal, state and local advice when deciding to hold gatherings.

"City meetings, including council, boards and committees, remain scheduled," Perrin stated. "However, as evidenced by events nationwide, we will address these decisions again as new information becomes available.

Among other closures in Craighead County are the county jail immediately and indefinitely banning all visitors, the monster truck show scheduled for Saturday at First National Bank Arena and the Lauren Daigle World Tour concert - which has been postponed until Aug. 13.