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Omicron surge impacting essential services in rural communities

Published: Jan. 18, 2022 at 5:11 PM CST
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HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. (WMC) - Government staff in rural areas are being hit hard by the wave in omicron cases.

With a smaller pool of employees, local mayors say even a small surge in cases has an impact.

“This has hit us faster, and harder, and more unexpectedly,” said Helena-West Helena Mayor Kevin Smith.

While there are signs that omicron cases have peaked in the Mid-South, Smith isn’t ready to breathe easier. He said this surge has affected the town differently. It’s infecting more city workers, leaving already overworked staff to cover essential community services.

“We have been fortunate that other employees have stepped up to fill those gaps, but it’s been alarming at how fast and how hard it’s hit us,” Smith said.

Smith said at one time during this surge, nearly 100% of dispatchers were out due to COVID-19.

Now, four police officers are out because of COVID-19 within the Helena-West Helena Police Department. In a force of 20 officers, that means 20% of the town’s police officers are out.

“That takes away our manpower because it’s such a small department,” Helena-West Helena Interim Police Chief James Mayfield said.

Leaders in other rural areas of the Mid-South are bracing for how the surge will impact their employees as well. In West Tennessee, Haywood County Mayor David Livington said more departments are incurring overtime costs.

Mayors in Covington, Tennessee and Walls, Mississippi said they have been able to avoid widespread transmission among staff, leaving government services to run like normal.

Walls Mayor Keidron Henderson said a widespread transmission event could be devastating.

“If we were to get hit with a strong surge of positive cases, then we would really have to roll up our sleeves and figure it out. It would take on a life of its own,” Henderson said.

Back in Helena-West Helena, Smith said disruption to services in the town would also impact surrounding areas. The landfill in Phillips County serves three counties with a highly trained staff of less than a half dozen.

“It doesn’t take long to get it debilitated for three counties,” Smith said.

In Helena-West Helena, a mask mandate is in effect in all city buildings to protect staff. Community members can also pick up free COVID-19 tests at the Municipal Building at 226 Perry Street.

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