FAYETTEVILLE -- City officials here say they need more covid-19 data, especially in light of the fall semester that began last week at the University of Arkansas.
The university reported 222 active cases Monday afternoon. The data includes tests performed on campus, self-reported cases and test results from the Arkansas Department of Health, according to the university's website. The data is updated Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The university began reporting the data that includes students, faculty and staff Aug. 10.
Dr. Marti Sharkey, city health officer, said that the university only performs polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, and the state generally only refers to cases confirmed by PCR tests in its data. Detailed data on how many positive antigen tests there are locally would give a more accurate picture as to how widespread the virus is on campus and in the city, she said.
PCR tests and antigen tests can detect covid-19. Results from antigen tests take less than an hour compared with days for PCR tests. Antigen tests have an increased chance of false-negative results, meaning it's possible to be infected but test negative, so the result may need to be confirmed with a PCR test, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The PCR test detects genetic material from the virus and is considered more accurate at detecting early-stage infections.
Zac Brown, spokesman for the university's Pat Walker Health Center, said the center would like a machine to do antigen testing. He was not sure as of Monday afternoon if that would soon be a possibility. Both PCR and antigen tests are performed as nasal via throat swabs, according to the CDC. The university uses a North Little Rock private lab, Natural State Laboratories, and receives most PCR test results within 36-48 hours, Brown said. While that is a fast turnaround, rapid testing would be best to control the spread of the virus on a college campus, he said.
The Health Department regularly updates its website to show how many covid-19 tests have been performed and how many confirmed covid-19 cases there are in each county. The data is based only on PCR tests and does not include antigen tests, said Gavin Lesnick, spokesman for the department.
The Health Department collects antigen test results from county health units and private clinics. The department plans to report the antigen data but is still deciding how. The department has not determined whether the data will be available for each county or only statewide, Lesnick said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday during his news briefing that 4,644 antigen tests were performed in the state in August compared with the state's goal of 10,000. The antigen tests generally have a higher positivity rate than PCR tests, he said. The state had an average PCR positivity rate of about 8% over the past seven days, Hutchinson said. A graph he presented Monday showed antigen test results had positivity rates of anywhere from 5% to 35% in the same time period.
The Fayetteville Board of Health asked the governor and Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero in a letter dated Monday to provide antigen test results at the local level.
"Since a significant number of these antigen tests are being run in our community, it is critical that we have the full reporting of these test results in order to: inform our community of the spread of this disease; provide proper medical guidance; and, our ultimate goal, to save lives," the letter states.
The Board of Health has been collecting antigen test results from local clinics to the best of its ability, according to the letter.
The Board of Health is an advisory board made up of health professionals who do not have the authority to make decisions for the city or university, but can provide guidance. Sharkey said the board can use the data to help make suggestions, which could include closing establishments such as bars or restaurants.
"I just need to know how many sick people I've got in my city," Mayor Lioneld Jordan said. "How many people have this virus? Then I've got to react to whatever those numbers are."
Jordan said he wants a daily count of cases in the city. Right now, he gets a weekly report from the Fire Department compiling case numbers available on the Department of Health's interactive map for Washington and Benton counties.
The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement also has a map showing reported cases by community, school district or zip code. However, the community option includes all of the city's zip codes, which includes areas outside the city, Fire Chief Brad Hardin said.
Through Aug. 24, the center's community map reported 5,212 cumulative cases in Fayetteville, with 170 active cases.
More than 1,000 University of Alabama students have tested positive for coronavirus since returning to campus Aug. 19, according to Bloomberg News. About 38,000 undergraduate students attend the campus in Tuscaloosa, meaning more than 2.5% of the student body tested positive. Bars in the city were ordered to close last week.
Information for this article was contributed by Stacy Ryburn of the NWA Democrat-Gazette.