Arkansas’ count of coronavirus cases rose Tuesday by 952, while the number of patients hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose to a record high for the second day in a row.
The state’s death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 24, to 1,857.
After reaching a new high on Monday, covid-19 hospitalizations rose Tuesday by 27, to 676.
Those patients included 94 on ventilators, down from 102 a day earlier.
At his weekly news conference on the pandemic, held virtually on Tuesday for the second week in a row, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said hospitals “not anywhere close” to reaching their capacity to handle covid-19 patients.
But he indicated hospitals could have to make adjustments if the number of patients keeps increasing.
“What we don’t want to have to happen is that we have to start cutting back on elective procedures” to make room for coronavirus patients, Hutchinson said.
“These are very important to the economic health of the hospitals, but it’s just as important to the health of our patients and our population, so we need to work to get our cases down to get hospitalizations down.”
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The cases added to the state tallies included 651 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.
The other 301 were “probable” cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state’s cumulative count of confirmed and probable cases rose to 107,679.
That comprised 100,061 confirmed cases and 7,618 probable ones.
The number of cases that were considered active fell by 81, to 9,490, as 1,008 Arkansas were newly classified as having recovered.
The number of Arkansans who have ever been hospitalized with the virus rose by 73, to 6,841, while those who have ever been on a ventilator rose by seven, to 819.
The state death toll rose by 20, to 1,696 among confirmed cases and by four, to 161 among probable cases.
Health Secretary Jose Romero said 16 of the recent deaths were nursing home residents.
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Despite the different classifications, the Health Department has said it treats confirmed and probable cases the same for the purposes of its contact-tracing efforts.
That includes requiring people whose results are positive from either type of test to isolate themselves and for those they may have infected to quarantine.
So far this week, the daily increase in cases each day has been bigger than on the same day a week earlier.
Possibly reflecting slowdowns in testing on weekends, those increases tend to start out small and peak on Thursday or Friday.
At a record level since Friday, the average number of confirmed and probable cases added to the state tallies each day over a rolling seven-day period rose Tuesday by 15, to 1,034.
UPTICK AMONG ELDERS
Romero noted that the state’s rise in hospitalizations has coincided with an uptick in cases among Arkansans age 65 and older, who are at a greater risk than younger people of developing severe complications.
According to a chart presented at the news conference, the number of cases among people in that age group rose 7.9% last week.
That compared with case increases of 4.8% among children, 4% among Arkansans age 18-24, 4.9% among those age 25-44 and 5.7% among those age 45-64.
While some of the older people infected were in nursing homes, “there are a significant number of these cases coming from the community,” Romero said.
“Up until a week or so ago, we saw this older age group sequestering themselves, taking care of themselves and avoiding these contacts,” Romero said.
“Now that more family gatherings are occurring, they are exposing themselves to individuals that are asymptomatic and can transmit the disease.”
He said Arkansans should “seriously consider whether it is appropriate” to have gatherings with a lot of relatives over Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“We know that across the country, reunions, family reunions, family gatherings are the sources where most of these infections are occurring now,” he said.
Hutchinson said Arkansas’ increase in cases has been gradual, rather than “a larger scale increase” experienced in areas in other states where hospitals are overwhelmed.
“It reminds us of where we can be, and we don’t want to be there,” he said.
He said Romero has met “with the hospital teams and [is] coordinating with them to make sure we are prepared in the event there is additional stress on the system.”
“The biggest concern is our staffing issues and there’s just not a good answer for that,” Hutchinson said.
“It has to be handled by each local hospital, but there’s a great need for additional medical teams that can handle [intensive care] beds, [that] can handle all the other needs in the hospital, and we hope that we can keep that flow of personnel available to them, and that’s one of the things we have to look at.”
An influx of patients over the weekend prompted hospitals and other health care providers in northeastern Arkansas to issue a statement this week calling on residents to take precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.
As of Friday, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Greene, Lawrence, Mississippi, Poinsett and Randolph counties “accounted for almost 20% of the active cases in Arkansas despite having just over 10% of the state’s population,” the health care providers said.
“Consequently, all northeast Arkansas hospitals are experiencing a significant increase in COVID patients,” the providers said.
“Our medical leaders have said for several months that the fall would likely bring a resurgence of cases, and that’s certainly what we’re now experiencing,” the statement said.
“As this time of year brings cooler temperatures and more indoor activities, the risk of transmitting the virus increases.”
Shane Speights, dean of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, said hospitals had been preparing for a surge of patients during the fall and have “quite a bit of flex capacity right now” to handle more.
But he said they wanted to make sure residents took the virus seriously.
“Because the public doesn’t generally hear from the hospitals, they assume there’s not lot of virus,” Speights said.
RESTRICTIONS NOT PLANNED
Hutchinson said he doesn’t have any plans to reimpose a ban on hospitals performing elective surgical procedures to make room for more patients, but knows “the hospitals have to make their own adjustments within their hospitals to balance their covid patients and their other medical needs.”
He said he also doesn’t plan to reimpose additional restrictions on businesses.
“The solution is people watching their own discipline in terms of wearing a mask, socially distancing, protecting others from the spread of the virus.
“That is the solution, so we can reduce hospitalizations, reduce the number of cases, and that is what needs to be done versus putting additional restrictions on businesses, which adds to a whole host of additional challenges that we face from unemployment to lost businesses, foreclosures.”
Hutchinson last week began limiting his meetings and public appearances after a person he was in a meeting with tested positive for the virus.
After testing negative, through antigen and PCR tests, on Oct. 19, Oct. 21 and Friday, Hutchinson tested negative again on Monday, spokeswoman Katie Beck said.
“The Department of Health has determined there is not a need for additional tests,” Beck said in an email.
“The Governor will continue to reduce public events until Friday.”
On another front, Romero said the state this week “had a visit from Operation Warp Speed,” the federal government’s effort to produce and deliver a coronavirus vaccine.
“We spoke with them at length on Monday and are beginning to plan for receipt of that vaccine as soon as it is available,” Romero said. “More than likely, these vaccines will need to be kept at ultra-cold storage, and we’re looking at sites to do that.”
The count of confirmed and probable cases rose Tuesday by 167 in Pulaski County, 79 in Benton County, 76 in Washington County, 72 in Craighead County and 64 in Saline County.
Among prison and jail inmates, the count of cases rose by 22.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said the number of cases among inmates rose by seven, to 209, at the McPherson Unit in Newport; by five, to 716 at the Varner Unit in Lincoln County; and by five, to 149, at the Tucker Unit in Jefferson County.
The Northeast Arkansas Community Correction Center in Osceola and the Omega Supervision Sanction Center in Malvern each had one new case.
The number of cases that were active at those prisons ranged from 121 at the Varner Unit to 49 at the Omega unit.
A virus case, along with staff members who were required to quarantine, prompted Little Rock’s Southwest High School to shift to virtual instruction, starting Tuesday, for at least the second time this school year.
“Staff will work virtually from home on Tuesday and return to the campus Wednesday,” the school said on its Facebook page Monday evening.
The Little Rock School District’s Little Rock West High School of Innovation, Cloverdale Middle School and Pulaski Heights Middle School are also holding classes online this week in response to virus cases.
In its daily coronavirus report, the Little Rock district said one student each at Central High School, Henderson Middle School and Terry Elementary School had tested positive, along with a staff member at Southwest High School.
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An additional 31 students and eight employees were required to quarantine. That included 13 students at Terry Elementary, eight at Henderson Middle, seven at Cloverdale Middle and five employees at Southwest High.
Virus concerns prompted the Greene County Tech School District in Paragould to shift to remote instruction starting today for grades six through 12, Superintendent Gene Weeks said.
“Northeast Arkansas is hot right now,” Weeks said. “Unfortunately Northwest Arkansas and Central Arkansas have been hit, have been hotter at times. I guess it is our time to be hot and hopefully we can get this thing turned around.”
There were five positive cases Oct. 19, he said. That number rose to 15 by the end of the week, and increased again to around 30 this week, he said.
“Parents are picking it up at work, and the kids are getting it,” Weeks said. “It has spiked on us, and we felt the need that we had to pivot [to virtual learning] at this time.”
Grades six through eight at Bald Knob Elementary School shifted to online learning Tuesday through Friday, according to a report the Bald Knob School District submitted to the Department of Education.
At Woodlawn Elementary School near Rison, sixth graders will learn remotely this week through Monday, according to a report the school filed with the Education Department. That report said the Woodlawn School District is “trying to address two confirmed positive cases that came into the elementary school from the community.”
The Jacksonville North Pulaski School District said Tuesday that it would suspend varsity football “until further notice” after a staff member and a football player tested positive, resulting in the quarantine of 32 student athletes, eight coaches and five elementary students for the next two weeks.
KITS TO BE DELIVERED
At Hutchinson’s news conference, Education Secretary Johnny Key said the number of districts holding online-only classes is declining.
“Last week, we saw 11 schools that made modifications to their on-site operations,” Key said. “That is the lowest weekly numbers that we have seen since school began.”
There are 17 active modifications, meaning districts have shifted entire schools, grades or even individual classrooms to online-learning only.
There are now 169 inactive modifications, meaning districts have “returned to normal on-site operations,” Key said.
In October, there have been 56 covid-related modifications. In September, there were 76, according to data from the Education Department.
Key also said eight of 14 schools identified as candidates for weekly covid-19 testing of staff had opted to participate.
Five schools asked for more time or had not yet responded to state’s offer.
Harp Elementary School in Springdale declined to participate because “they have very strong partnerships in their district with area medical providers,” Key said.
“If this partnership could be expanded, and they could do something districtwide, they might be interested,” Key said. “But with this being one elementary school and with the resources they already have available in the area, the superintendent and his board felt that it was more appropriate to allow those resources to be distributed across the state rather than them opt in at this time.”
Rapid antigen tests will be delivered to participating schools Thursday when faculty will undergo training on giving the tests, Key said, adding that the target to start screening will begin Monday.
The department is selecting another 20 schools to participate and they will be contacted by week’s end, Key said.
Hutchinson noted a drop in active cases on college campuses.
“The good news is we can see in our colleges, with our young adults, the 18-to-24 age group actually have changed their behavior,” Hutchinson said.
Cumulative active cases on campuses numbered 377 Monday, according to Health Department data, down from 394 last Thursday.
Average weekly active cases at UA-Fayetteville this month have been around 26, compared with 88 average weekly cases the last week of September, according to the UA website.
“We continue to reinforce how important it is to continue to follow basic guidelines, such as social distancing and wearing masks,” Mark Rushing, an associate vice chancellor for university relations at UA, said. “Folks are tired of hearing that but we have to stay steadfast in adhering to those precautions.”
Students have now adjusted to routines where they are not having to visit as many offices or search for classrooms or otherwise interact with people outside of more of a defined circle of faculty and classmates, Rushing said.
Arkansas State University in Jonesboro reported 34 active cases Monday, lower than a peak of 187 active cases mid-September.
“We’ve worked all semester to inform our students, faculty, staff and visitors about the need for physical distancing and face masks,” Bill Smith, ASU chief communications officer, said in an email. “From what I observe, the vast majority of our on-campus community is doing its part to limit the spread through these actions.”
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, reported 10 active cases on campus this week.