Omicron surge affects essential services in rural communities

HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. (WMC) – Government personnel in rural areas are being hit hard by the wave of omicron cases.

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

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

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

“We were fortunate that other employees stepped up to fill these gaps, but the speed and force with which it hit us was alarming,” Smith said.

Smith said that at some point during this wave, almost 100% of dispatchers were absent due to COVID-19.

Now four officers have been released due to COVID-19 within the Helena-West Helena Police Department. In a force of 20 officers, that means 20% of the city’s police officers are absent.

“It takes away from our workforce because it’s such a small department,” Helena-West Helena Acting Police Chief James Mayfield said.

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

The mayors of Covington, Tennessee and Walls, Mississippi, said they were able to avoid widespread transmission among staff, leaving government services to operate as normal.

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

“If we were to be hit with a big increase in positive cases, we should really roll up our sleeves and understand. It would take on a life of its own,” Henderson said.

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

“It doesn’t take long to weaken it 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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Michelle J. Kelley