TASK FORCE: LR Director Dean Kumpuris (left) and LR Mayor Frank Scott.

UAMS has now joined the Arkansas Department of Health in processing COVID-19 coronavirus tests. It has a testing machine that can process 144 samples per day, but the hospital is constrained by a lack of reagents, the chemicals needed to process the tests, said Dr. Steppe Mette, CEO of the UAMS Medical Center, at a meeting of the city of Little Rock COVID-19 Task Force on Monday.

Mette, a member of the task force, said UAMS only has enough reagents to process 50 tests per day. “They’re not going to tell us when to expect the next allotment nor how many tests will be included and this will be a day-by-day thing for us,” he said of the vendor.

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Dr. Amanda Novack, an infectious disease specialist with Baptist Health and a task force member, said Baptist had several machines already and one on order but was in a similar situation with insufficient reagents.

Mette said UAMS’ lab-developed test should be up and running by Wednesday. It will have the capacity to process 240 samples per day. Mette said those were positive steps, but made clear: “We’re not where we need to be.”

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The task force also includes representatives of the other major Little Rock hospitals — Arkansas Children’s Hospital, CHI St. Vincent’s, the Arkansas Heart Hospital and CARTI — as well as a representative from MEMS. Other hospitals are sending samples to commercial labs and to the state health department, which, until UAMS began its testing, had been the only in-state testing lab.

Dr. Gerry Jones, chief medical officer at CHI St. Vincent Chief, said this his hospital had begun working with Natural State Laboratories in North Little Rock to process tests. Jones said Natural State expected to get FDA approval of its process this week.

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Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore appeared before the task force to talk about preliminary discussions he’d had with health care officials about providing childcare services for health care workers and first responders with school out and daycare facilities closing.

One idea is that LRSD buildings would be used as a sort of 12-13-hour “day camp” for children ages 6-13. LRSD paraprofessionals and certified teachers would provide staffing in two shifts. At Children’s Hospital, talks have been about LRSD staff supplementing staff that the hospital already has.

Novack, acknowledging that childcare is a huge need to address, said, “There’s a reason schools are closed. In a pandemic that’s a huge source for cross infectivity. … In a perfect world, I’d have a straight-A college student matched up with a couple of kids and in a little pod. You put 50 of them in a gymnasium, all of whom have very important parents because they’re on the frontlines of fighting this, it could very quickly become a major problem.”

Little Rock City Director Dean Kumpuris, the chairman of the task force and a gastroenterologist, said it was important for health care officials to continue to meet with Poore and the city to determine if and how the LRSD partnership would work.

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Kumpuris also praised Poore for helping provide Children’s Hospital with thermometers to screen patients and staff entering the hospital using supply the LRSD won’t need with school out. Poore worked with Dr. Jared Capouya, vice president of quality and safety, at Arkansas Children’s.

“Jared and I met at a gas station. It was kind of weird… but we got it done,” Poore said, eliciting laughs from the group.

The task force also discussed how hospitals would deal with the potential overflow of patients in the coming weeks.

“I get really scared when I look at what’s happening in New York City and Seattle where there’s just not enough capacity to take care of patients who need critical care services,” UAMS’ Mette said. “It worries me that we have not, as a region or a city, come together to … understand what our resources are and have a master plan for a worst-case scenario.”

Mette said UAMS had begun that sort of modeling. “I don’t like what I see,” he said. “I do think we could easily be overwhelmed for our critical care capacity.” That, in turn, would put a strain on patients who don’t need critical care.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said FEMA would soon be providing guidelines for how to go about converting hotels into overflow hospitals for patients who needed to be isolated but didn’t need intensive care. He also said the city was negotiating with out-of-state owners to use the North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville, which shut down last summer.

The task force will meet again at 4 p.m. Friday.