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Suddenlink battling flurry of lawsuits

JONESBORO — Todd Turner grew frustrated with the internet service provider at his Arkadelphia law office. After failing to get his issues resolved, he did what lawyers do.

He sued Suddenlink last July in Clark County Circuit Court.

He’s filed six lawsuits against Altice USA, parent company of Suddenlink, including one Feb. 12 on behalf of the City of Gurden, seeking class-action status for all cities and counties affected.

The lawsuits accuse Suddenlink of breach of contract, unjust enrichment (price-gouging) and violations of the Arkansas Fair Trade Practices Act, among other things.

While the cases directly affect residents in Clark County, it has the potential to bring relief to Suddenlink customers in Jonesboro, the largest city served by Suddenlink, and customers across Arkansas.

In his own lawsuit, Turner said, “Plaintiff has wasted a great deal of time calling and writing letters to Suddenlink,” and “The Plaintiff has wasted paper and postage by writing letters to Suddenlink.”

Turner eventually dropped his lawsuit after signing up with a new internet service provider – Ritter Communications of Jonesboro.

In one of the potential class-action lawsuits, Turner wrote, “The Plaintiffs have had consistent service problems and have experienced service internet outages but have never received a credit to their accounts for the days and hours when they were without service. In other words, Suddenlink consistently bills the Plaintiffs for services even when Suddenlink is not providing those services.”

Suddenlink has sought to have the cases thrown out because of a clause in service agreements requiring out-of-court arbitration. A judge in Arkadelphia rejected that argument, and the company is appealing to the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

“I have yet to see anybody of the bunches of people I have talked to that ever signed any kind of contract,” Turner told The Sun Monday. “But what happens is, if you sue them, then they saw we’ve got this website and we’ve got this arbitration clause on it, and so you can’t sue us; you have to go to arbitration one at a time and that’s your only remedy.” He said customers could potentially win at arbitration but still end up losing money.

Suddenlink moved some of the Clark County lawsuits to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas in hopes of preventing them from being certified as a class-action.

“Plaintiffs received monthly billing statements for their Suddenlink services,” Suddenlink attorneys wrote in their federal court arguments to compel arbitration. “These billing statements make clear that ‘[p]ayment of your bill confirms your acceptance of the Residential Services Agreement, viewable at suddenlink.com/terms-policy.’”

If one were to print out the Residential Services Agreement, including the fine print, it would consume 15 pages of paper.

But Turner said in moving the case to federal court, the company may well have proven it broke the law.

The state’s deceptive trade practices act prohibits “excessive and unjustified increases in the prices of essential consumer goods and services” during a state of emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic, Turner contends.

“According to an affidavit from a Suddenlink director in another lawsuit, the Defendant has increased charges by more than 10 percent on over 31,000 Arkansas customers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, 2020,” Turner wrote in Gurdon’s lawsuit. “These increases have resulted in revenue of over $3.6 million from those customers, alone.”

In a July 30, 2020, Altice USA earnings call, its CEO Dexter G. Goei cited a dramatic increase in customers since the beginning of the pandemic. USA Today reported Goei received $53.6 million in compensation in 2018 on $9.3 billion in revenue.

Turner told The Sun customers who choose to drop Suddenlink find themselves receiving more bills to cover the cost of the equipment. That’s because Suddenlink has closed virtually every office outside of Jonesboro. Former customers in Arkadelphia and even El Dorado are advised by bill collectors to bring the equipment to Jonesboro, more than 200 miles away, he said.

Traffic was tied up in all four directions for a time as first responders worked to free the driver of this car Monday afternoon. Sally Smith, public information specialist for the Jonesboro Police Department, said a report hadn’t been completed by press time. However, she said a eastbound sport-utility vehicle ran a red light at Johnson Avenue and Bridge Street, colliding with the northbound sedan, which was attempting to make a left turn off Bridge Street onto Johnson. Non life-threatening injuries were reported.

Noon hour crash

Drexel and Stanton Thomas warm their hands over a candle in the quinzhee they built following the snowstorm last week in Jonesboro.

Snow hut

Half a million dead in US, confirming virus’s tragic reach

For weeks after Cindy Pollock began planting tiny flags across her yard — one for each of the more than 1,800 Idahoans killed by COVID-19 – the toll was mostly a number. Until two women she had never met rang her doorbell in tears, seeking a place to mourn the husband and father they had just lost.

Then Pollock knew her tribute, however heartfelt, would never begin to convey the grief of a pandemic that has now claimed 500,000 lives in the U.S. and counting.

“I just wanted to hug them,” she said. “Because that was all I could do.”

After a year that has darkened doorways across the U.S., the pandemic surpassed a milestone Monday that once seemed unimaginable, a stark confirmation of the virus’s reach into all corners of the country and communities of every size and makeup.

“It’s very hard for me to imagine an American who doesn’t know someone who has died or have a family member who has died,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We haven’t really fully understood how bad it is, how devastating it is, for all of us.”

Experts warn that about 90,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months, despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people. Meanwhile, the nation’s trauma continues to accrue in a way unparalleled in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon.

At other moments of epic loss, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have pulled together to confront crisis and console survivors. But this time, the nation is deeply divided. Staggering numbers of families are dealing with death, serious illness and financial hardship. And many are left to cope in isolation, unable even to hold funerals.

“In a way, we’re all grieving,” said Schuurman, who has counseled the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.

In recent weeks, virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

Still, at half a million, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. It is akin to a 9/11 every day for nearly six months.

“The people we lost were extraordinary,” President Joe Biden said Monday, urging Americans to remember the individual lives claimed by the virus, rather than be numbed by the enormity of the toll.

“Just like that,” he said, “so many of them took their final breath alone in America.”

The toll, accounting for 1 in 5 deaths reported worldwide, has far exceeded early projections, which assumed that federal and state governments would marshal a comprehensive and sustained response and individual Americans would heed warnings.

Instead, a push to reopen the economy last spring and the refusal by many to maintain social distancing and wear face masks fueled the spread.

The figures alone do not come close to capturing the heartbreak.

“I never once doubted that he was not going to make it. ... I so believed in him and my faith,” said Nancy Espinoza, whose husband, Antonio, was hospitalized with COVID-19 last month.

The couple from Riverside County, California, had been together since high school. They pursued parallel nursing careers and started a family. Then, on Jan. 25, Nancy was called to Antonio’s bedside just before his heart beat its last. He was 36 and left behind a 3-year-old son.

“Today it’s us. And tomorrow it could be anybody,” Nancy Espinoza said.

By late last fall, 54 percent of Americans reported knowing someone who had died of COVID-19 or had been hospitalized with it, according to a Pew Research Center poll. The grieving was even more widespread among Black Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.

Deaths have nearly doubled since then, with the scourge spreading far beyond the Northeast and Northwest metropolitan areas slammed by the virus last spring and the Sun Belt cities hit hard last summer.

In some places, the seriousness of the threat was slow to sink in.

When a beloved professor at a community college in Petoskey, Michigan, died last spring, residents mourned, but many remained doubtful of the threat’s severity, Mayor John Murphy said. That changed over the summer after a local family hosted a party in a barn. Of the 50 who attended, 33 became infected. Three died, he said.

“I think at a distance people felt ‘This isn’t going to get me,’” Murphy said. “But over time, the attitude has totally changed from ‘Not me. Not our area. I’m not old enough,’ to where it became the real deal.”

Hospitals, pharmacies work to catch up on vaccinations

JONESBORO — Local health care systems and pharmacies are scrambling to catch up with canceled vaccinations after two winter storms hit the region last week, dropping nearly a foot of snowfall in some areas.

Jett Jones, a pharmacist at The Medicine Shoppe on 325 Southwest Drive in Jonesboro, said there were 300 phone calls made last week to reschedule appointments.

“Our (scheduled vaccine) distribution was fine, we still had doses, but we had to reschedule everyone to Tuesday,” he said, noting appointments had to be canceled Monday due to the weather.

Jones said as the next winter storm moved through the area on Wednesday and Thursday, appointments were canceled again.

“We had a big clinic on Saturday and (administered) about 70 vaccines,” Jones said.

Personnel will continue to give vaccines this week, he added, noting, “We have about 300 scheduled.”

Jones said The Medicine Shoppe is part of the state’s hub and spoke model; however, the hub is actually located in Paragould.

St. Bernards Medical Center has also been working to ensure those who need vaccinations will receive them.

Mitchell Nail, St. Bernards media relations manager, said that due to last week’s weather, most vaccination appointments had to be rescheduled.

“We were able to get in some vaccinations in the week, on Monday,” Nail said. “Tuesday through Friday, we had to reschedule.”

Nail said the health care system has allocated extra resources in order to get caught up.

Nail said no vaccinations have been lost as a result of canceled appointments due to inclement weather.

“I think there is a risk of any time you have a vaccination day,” he said of losing vaccinations.

St. Bernards has implemented a vaccination plan where only the hospital’s vaccination clinic prepares the exact number of vaccinations for the day based on appointments.

“Scheduling has been an important part of the process,” he said, noting if someone scheduled cannot make the appointment, the next person on the list is called, so no vaccines are wasted.

Katie Grissom, NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital director of clinical operations, said the hospital staff administering vaccinations in the state’s current phase, 1B, had to make numerous calls to reschedule.

“We were able to reschedule most of those to Saturday, Monday, today and Wednesday,” she said. Grissom said NEA Baptist Memorial so far has inoculated more than 5,000 people.

Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, Arkansas State epidemiologist, said the state received nearly all the expected Pfizer vaccine shipments, but only half of the expected Moderna vaccinations.

“This will be a busy week,” she said, noting in some areas of the state facilities will be receiving double shipments.

Dillaha said the entire nation can expect to see more vaccinations flood the states if the Food and Drug Administration approves the Johnson and Johnson vaccination. The FDA will meet Feb. 26, she said.

Dillaha also noted some misconceptions she has heard regarding the vaccines.

“We consider people fully vaccinated two weeks after they have received both doses,” she said.

Dillaha said the Centers for Disease Control currently recommends those who have received both the first and second doses of their vaccinations do not have to quarantine if they come in direct contact with someone who has COVID-19. Dillaha said the recommendation specifically states that is only true for the first three months after being fully vaccinated.

“This does not mean that the vaccination stops working after 90 days,” she said.

She said immunity lasts longer, but there is no clear data on what the exact time frame is.

“Studies are ongoing,” she said. “The data is being analyzed, and official recommendations will be made as more data becomes available.”

Dillaha also wanted to clear up another misconception.

“The vaccination is 95 percent effective in preventing cases of COVID-19, and 100 percent effective in preventing severe cases,” she said. “That leaves 5 to 6 percent of the population who could still get a mild case of COVID-19.”

The Arkansas Department of Health continues to encourage everyone to socially distance and to avoid large crowds.

“Current estimates are we will be in Phase 1c sometime in April,” she said.

New virus cases drop to single digits

JONESBORO — While Arkansas froze last week, so did the numbers of new coronavirus cases in Northeast Arkansas.

But while most people were unable to get out of their homes to submit to tests, the cold weather didn’t stop people from dying of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. From Feb. 15 through Sunday, the statewide death toll rose by 82 from 5,275 to 5,375.

Among the past week’s deaths were three in Craighead County, two in Clay and one each in Greene, Poinsett and Cross counties.

During that time, Craighead County recorded a total of 57 new virus cases, either through lab testing or the quicker point of care testing. Greene County had just 16 new cases, Mississippi had 16, Randolph 14 and Cross with 11. The remaining area counties were in single digits for the entire week. Jackson and Poinsett counties had only six new cases.

On Monday, the Arkansas Department of Health reported just 245 new cases statewide, based on the results of just 2,461 tests. The death toll rose by six to 5,363. The number of active COVID-19 cases dropped by 771 to 4,899. Pulaski County had the most new cases Monday with 34. Craighead had a total of nine new cases.

Statewide hospitalizations due to the virus rose by 11 to 588; 225 were in intensive care, an increase of six; and 109 patients were on ventilators, down by five.

In Northeast Arkansas, hospitalizations were down five to 60; ICU patients declined by four to 11; and six were on ventilators, an increase of one since Sunday.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a news release that new and active cases remain lower than what’s been seen in the past few weeks.

“We’re distributing vaccine doses throughout the state and encourage those who are eligible to make sure they’re signed up,” Hutchinson said. “We expect vaccine and testing numbers to increase this week with clear roads across the state.”

Northeast Arkansas COVID-19 cases by county through Monday:

Craighead – 11,065 confirmed (up 5 from Sunday), 1,627 probable (up 4); 147 active cases (down 33); 158 confirmed deaths, 19 probable.

Greene – 4,594 confirmed (up 4), 1,176 probable (up 1); 51 active (unchanged); 62 confirmed deaths, 12 probable.

Lawrence – 1,623 confirmed (up 1); 372 probable (unchanged); 22 active (down 6); 37 confirmed deaths, 4 probable.

Poinsett – 2,666 confirmed (unchanged), 388 probable (unchanged); 29 active (down 8); 59 confirmed deaths, 16 probable.

Mississippi – 4,921 confirmed (unchanged), 595 probable (unchanged); 54 active cases (down 12); 94 confirmed deaths, 18 probable.

Jackson – 2,408 confirmed (unchanged), 721 probable (unchanged); 11 active cases (down 8); 21 confirmed deaths, 12 probable.

Randolph – 1,494 confirmed (unchanged), 432 probable (up 3); 20 active cases (down 2); 35 confirmed deaths, 14 probable.

Cross – 1,480 confirmed (up 3), 412 probable (unchanged); 23 active cases (up 2); 45 confirmed deaths, 3 probable.

Clay – 1,277 confirmed (up 1), 388 probable (up 1); 15 active cases (down 2); 33 confirmed deaths, 13 probable.