When Gov. Asa Hutchinson gave his daily COVID-19 briefing one week ago Friday, one of the state’s most rural areas suddenly appeared among the top counties in the state reporting the largest number of new cases. On that day, Newton County rose to the number four slot on the list, with 55 cases.
Hutchinson said Newton County was new to the list, and that, when looking at the data, the outbreak seemed to be among the elderly. He said the state was working to determine whether it was related to a nursing home environment.
He said, “When you have 55 cases in Newton County, one of the most rural parts of Arkansas, everybody has to be mindful. There’s not any area of the state that’s exempt.”
Just over a week later, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this weekend the coronavirus has swept through the Newton County Nursing Home in Jasper, infecting 47 of the 51 patients and 25 health care workers. The information came from Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association.
Bunch says, “It’s really been tragic, taking a toll across the whole facility.”
She says she didn’t know how many of the covid-positive patients and staff members are symptomatic.
The nursing home accounts for 85% of all virus cases in the county, based on numbers released Friday by the Arkansas Department of Health.
The Newton County Nursing Home is the only such facility in the county, which has a population of 8,330.
A worker at the nursing home tested positive March 31, according to the Health Department, but that employee was sent home and the virus was kept at bay until last week, when the first patient tested positive.
By July 24, the Health Department said, there were 50-60 positive cases at the nursing home, but exact numbers didn’t show up in the department’s “nursing homes and congregate settings” list until Thursday — 50 positive patients and 27 positive health care workers. However, two of those workers have recovered.
Bunch says the number 50 for patients includes three people who had been living at the nursing home but died at hospitals.
She says, “We don’t know how the virus got in.”
Bunch says this type of rapid increase in cases has been seen at a few other Arkansas nursing homes.
“Newton County is not alone and not unique,” she says. “This virus is just so highly contagious.”
Bunch said the nursing home is unique, however, because it is owned and operated by the county. She said the facility hadn’t reopened to visitors since a ban was instituted in March to keep the virus out.
The state allowed long-term facilities to reopen to visitors in July, albeit with conditions, including that no resident or worker tested positive in the previous 28 days.
Administrator Lisa Duncan, who has worked at the nursing home since 1996, has stayed at the facility 24 hours a day since July 24, when the outbreak was discovered, says Bunch. Two other administrators also have remained at the facility for an entire week, Bunch says.
Rep. Keith Slape, R-Compton, whose district includes Newton County, says it’s a mystery how the virus got into the nursing home after many precautions were taken.
“We’re just trying to figure out how it breached the protocol,” he says. “They were doing what they were supposed to. They were doing the testing. They were doing the protocol. But still, we’re talking about a virus that knows no borders. It’s challenging.”
Throughout most of May and all of June, the Health Department’s daily listing of “nursing homes and congregate settings” showed the Jasper nursing home with just two positive health care workers, both of whom had already recovered from the virus.
But last Monday, the number of infected workers at the nursing home jumped to 26, according to the Health Department list. Two of the 26 were listed as having recovered.
Since then, one more positive worker has been added to the list.
The nursing home had 115 employees and 10 volunteers in 2018, according to its tax records.