As vaccine availability across the country continues to steadily increase, proof of the vaccine's safety and effectiveness continues to grow as well, according to the latest statistics.
Dr. Doug Ross, president of CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs, said Wednesday that throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic, 99% of the patients admitted to the hospital with the virus have been unvaccinated.
"You know, the COVID vaccine is remarkably safe and remarkably effective," he said. "And I think that those are just remarkable statistics to show how effective the vaccine is in keeping you out of the hospital and, unfortunately, how much risk you're putting yourself at if you don't get the vaccine."
While many people are still hesitant about receiving, or completely decline, the vaccine, Ross said he believes its track record has reached the point of proving itself and people are taking notice.
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"I think we've seen over the last several weeks with the delta variants of COVID really moving very, very quickly through Arkansas, we've seen many more people make appointments to get their vaccinations," he said. "So I think, I think that's healthy. And really our experience on the safety and the efficacy -- the COVID vaccine at our facility is not unique.
"We have hospitals all across the country that are reporting the exact same data that the vaccine is safe and that it is remarkably effective in keeping you out of the hospital and keeping you ultimately -- the most important -- in keeping you from dying from COVID-19," he said.
Garland County Health Officer Dr. Gene Shelby, a member of the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force, said at Wednesday's Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club meeting that Garland County's positive number of active cases has grown considerably over the last month.
"We're in the middle of a major pandemic, epidemic here in Garland County," he said. "The numbers don't lie. We have gone from 60 active cases four weeks ago to over 360 active cases. The delta variant is highly transmissible, highly contagious. It's 80% of the cases that we're seeing here."
As the growing number of cases has caused a rise in hospitalizations at CHI, Ross said their hospitals are also full of non-COVID patients and while maximum capacity has yet to be reached, preparations are in place and temporary facilities are part of that plan.
"We've seen a dramatic rise in the number of our COVID patients," he said. "We also have -- our hospitals are full of non-COVID patients. You know, we always have to remember that we need to not only keep our doors open and care for those with COVID-19, but we're here for all types of medical illnesses. So we have had to look at and implement some of our surge plans that we did in the phases of the pandemic -- in our cases, back in November and December.
"But the reason why we developed those plans is we wanted to be proactive. We wanted to make sure that we had the space and the people and the resources to continue to care for this community and we've been effective. Our doors are still open and anybody that needs to come to us for care, they're going to continue to get high-quality care at our facility."
Ross reiterated the importance of being prepared as a hospital system and staying ahead of the situation.
"We do not believe that we need to invoke that step of an alternate care facility at this time, but we're -- if our numbers, unfortunately, continue to rise -- those are definitely things that we would have to consider," he said.
Shelby noted that local intensive care units are filling up with people in the 30-50 age range group due to the new variants of the virus and the county will likely see a significant increase in deaths over the next few weeks or months.
"The real sad part of this is that all these deaths are preventable," he said. "The vaccines that have been available since, really, December and January of this year, are highly effective and very, very safe. But unfortunately, people aren't getting the vaccines and I think there are lots of excuses, but I think that anybody who cares about their friends and family and the community should be vaccinated."
Regarding the current vaccination rates in Garland County, Shelby said while there may be some variation in the numbers, roughly 31% of all Garland County residents are fully vaccinated in comparison with 35% in Arkansas and 49% across the United States. He noted that with the new delta variant, it's now more important than ever to be fully vaccinated.
"One dose will provide some protection but you have to have two doses to get the full protection," he said. "And fortunately, if you're fully vaccinated, it does really prevent serious illness against the delta variant.
Ross said free vaccinations are available at CHI St. Vincent clinics as well as its hospital and in various pharmacies throughout the town.
"There are multiple locations that you can get the COVID-19 vaccine and that's a decision that will, could, save your life," he said.