The number of coronavirus patients in Arkansas hospitals and on ventilators set records Tuesday, and state officials pointed to a White House task force’s predictions to again plead with Arkansans to take measures to avoid the disease.
The number of people in hospitals rose by 34 to 895, and those requiring ventilators rose by 14 to 137, according to the state Department of Health.
Another 1,554 cases were added Tuesday, raising the cumulative total to 135,902 since March.
Deaths from the virus rose by 20 to 2,245.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, at his weekly coronavirus news conference from the state Capitol, referred to a report released Tuesday by the White House Coronavirus Task Force that said its members shared a “strong concern” for the worsening current situation in Arkansas.
The national task force leaders suggested that Arkansas officials place increased restrictions on restaurant capacity, bar hours and other businesses.
Hutchinson, quoting from the report, said the past two weeks of increasing covid-19 cases and hospitalizations puts Arkansas on the “precipice of a rapid accelerating increase in cases which will be followed with new hospital admissions.”
“Now that’s a statement that will get your attention as a leader,” Hutchinson said. “We look at the holiday season that is approaching and we have to be mindful that if Arkansas continues at the present pace over the last two days, then Arkansas will have an additional 1,000 Arkansans that will die as a result of covid-19 between now and Christmas.”
The prediction is a “cloud that hangs over” anyone who wants to enjoy the “cheer of Christmas,” he added.
“That should inspire us to do well, to follow the guidelines, to do everything that we can to break that trend,” Hutchinson said.
The governor said he participated in a two-hour call Monday with President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force and he sees the incoming administration as “very, very engaged.”
The escalation of cases over the past two weeks has been “unacceptably too high,” Hutchinson said.
State Health Secretary Jose Romero echoed the White House report saying Arkansas is on the edge of a “significant and possibly uncontrollable” rise in cases.
“This is like a boulder rolling down a hill. There will come a time that we cannot stop it. It will continue to escalate and will eventually overwhelm our health care facilities,” Romero said. “Now is the time to act. I cannot stress enough the importance of the Three W’s. I’ll say it again: Wear your mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.”
BY THE NUMBERS
There are 16,576 active covid-19 cases in the state, a jump of 91 from the day before.
Of the 1,554 new cases, 13 were attributed to correctional facilities and the remaining were the result of community spread.
The county with the most new confirmed and probable cases was Pulaski County with 148, followed by Washington County with 133; Benton County with 102; White County with 67; and Craighead County with 63.
The counties with the highest active cases include Pulaski with 1,689; Washington with 1,349; Benton with 1,337; Sebastian with 820; Craighead with 771;and Saline County with 640.
Other counties with a high number of active cases include White with 572; Faulkner with 470; Greene with 418; Garland with 415; and Jefferson County, 406.
Hutchinson expressed concern that the current case growth is at 17.7% in the 0-24 age bracket, typically a “much more healthy” demographic.
“But still it shows a significant number of new cases there,” he said.
Results from 7,452 polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests were reported Tuesday, along with 3,234 rapid antigen tests.
“Testing has been very significant,” Hutchinson said.
The seven-day rolling average is 10,440 PCR tests and 2,082 antigen tests, according to Health Department data.
PCR tests are more accurate, but antigen tests give faster results.
Noting the increase in cases after Halloween, Hutchinson and Romero both said they were concerned about the Thanksgiving aftermath.
The majority of the covid-19 deaths are from nursing homes and long-term care facilities, Romero said.
“Bringing them [the elderly] to your home may be a detriment to their health. I really think you need to consider this and consider postponing your Thanksgiving to a later date,” he said. “It is for their safety. I understand the situation that you all have. You want to be together, but it’s time to protect them and to protect their lives.”
According to a weekly Health Department report released Monday, 961 nursing-home residents and three staff members have died of covid-19 since the pandemic hit the state in March.
In the past 14 days, 1,151 nursing-home and assisted-living patients and 787 employees tested positive for the virus.
Hutchinson said there are no plans to restrict visitation in long-term care facilities.
“Visitation is, of course, very, very important,” he said. “The heartache we’ve seen in previous months because there was not any access, I don’t think we want to go back to that. But we do want to have it as careful and safely as possible.”
Hutchinson encouraged Arkansans to forgo large family gatherings this year.
“Everything about Thanksgiving is common sense in the home environment to protect loved ones. I’m getting together with my family over Thanksgiving. I will have seven people in my home,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s nice weather and we can have plenty of air that flows through there. As need be, we can wear a mask or make sure there’s distancing there. It’s a small gathering and that’s what I would encourage people to look at. I think the admonition there is be careful about the vulnerable populations.”
Romero went further and cautioned Arkansans to carefully consider their winter wedding plans and to enforce safety guidelines.
“Just because you’re at a wedding does not mean you should not wear your mask,” he said.
With 895 Arkansans hospitalized as of Tuesday, available patient bed space is quickly shrinking.
“That puts us on the verge of that 900 mark,” Hutchinson said, grimacing.
According to Health Department data released Tuesday, 2,371 hospital beds are available out of the state’s 9,144.
Of the 1,103 intensive-care beds, covid-19 patients occupied 350 of them Tuesday. Only 80 ICU beds remain available in the state.
When asked, Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said the total number of hospital beds includes those for psychiatric hospitals and rehab facilities that do not provide covid-19 care.
If the beds are in hospitals and not clinics, they are counted regardless of their intended use, McNeill said.
The 321 beds available at the State Hospital, an inpatient psychiatric facility, are included in the hospital-bed count. Also included is The Bridgeway’s 127 beds and Valley Behavioral Health System’s 114 beds.
Hutchinson said the state’s hospitals are good at finding adequate ICU space, but the problem is balancing it with the other needs they have.
“The staffing is another element to that. We can expand ICU beds if we had medical staff to do it,” he said. “One of the things we have to continue to look at is, are there ways we can move people more quickly through the pipeline to get them into the staffing environment of our hospitals and provide the nurses that we need?”
Ashley Warren, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Hospital Association, said hospital resources are strained throughout the state and especially the availability of staffed ICU beds.
“The fact that many Arkansans delayed care early in the pandemic has only compounded this challenge, because many of those patients now need critical care resources at the same time that covid-19 patients are presenting in record numbers,” Warren said. “The rising number of new covid-19 cases in the state in the last several weeks is putting extreme stress on the health care system and threatens to overwhelm hospitals.”
There are no plans to increase restrictions or shut down restaurants, bars or retail stores, Hutchinson said.
“If you put the restrictions back down to one-third, you would be shutting down a whole bunch of businesses. They are there by a thread in some cases. They have managed with a two-thirds capacity,” Hutchinson said. “They’re already limited and if you cut that back further, you’re going to be putting a lot of them under water and you’re going to be putting a lot of people unemployed. Our business grant funding is out. We don’t have any additional funding to help our businesses whenever you shut them down.”
The better approach is compliance, the governor said.
Mike Moore, regulatory administrator for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said at the news conference that Alcoholic Beverage Control agents have been issuing mostly verbal warnings so far for violations of Health Department directives at restaurants and bars.
“Our goal is for them to stay open; to keep providing services to the good people of Arkansas; to keep providing paychecks to their employees,” Moore said. “But also we want to make sure Arkansans are safe when they want to go out and when they want to eat.”
The agents have done more than 3,700 inspections since July with about a 93% compliance record, Moore said, proving that the state’s bars and restaurants are trying hard to prevent the virus spread.
“Even a 7% noncompliance can cause some huge problems when it comes to this covid-19 disease that our whole state is battling,” Moore said. “Even one or two locations that are noncompliant can cause some real problems.”
Four months is a long time to be giving education and warnings, Moore said.
“There’s going to be more accountability,” he said.
The Arkansas Department of Education remains committed to the goal of having as many students as possible on campus for face-to-face learning, even as case numbers in districts rise and more schools are pivoting to remote learning through the Thanksgiving holiday because of covid-19, Education Secretary Johnny Key said during Tuesday’s coronavirus news conference.
“We do acknowledge seeing a substantial increase in the number of schools affected by covid-19, and frankly, this is not a surprise given the increasing number of cases in the communities,” Key said. “We expected this, and we worked back in the summer with the Arkansas Department of Health to plan for it.”
Case numbers in districts tallied at more than 2,200, according to data released Monday by the Health Department. Monday’s data was the first time this fall that caseloads within the state public school system breached the 2,000 mark.
“Our school districts are doing an excellent job of consulting with the Department of Education and the Department of Health to understand their community and their in-school covid-19 data and making operational decisions that are appropriate for our collective goal,” Key said.
He said the “collective goal is to maximize the number of students for on-site instruction for the maximum amount of time this school year and do so in a way that emphasizes health and safety.”
There are 73 active school modifications because of the virus, which means individual classrooms, grades, schools or entire districts have made a shift to remote learning because of positive cases and quarantines, according to data from the Department of Education, which tracks such changes in districts. There are 204 expired modifications, Key said.
Last week, 46 districts filed shifts to off-site learning with the Education Department, Key said. Such shifts can last for a couple of days to a couple of weeks.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 16 additional districts reported modifications. So far in November, there have been 85 modifications, according to the Education Department.
In comparison, there were 61 covid-related school modifications in October, 76 in September and five in August.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Hutchinson said he does not believe schools should cancel athletic activities but instead continue to study plans to keep players and fans safe, such as opening windows in sporting venues to increase ventilation.
“We don’t plan on canceling athletics,” Hutchinson said. “I think it would be terrible for the health of our young people, but we will look at other ways to better control that environment.”
The Little Rock School District reported nine new positive cases and 81 new quarantines in its daily virus update online Tuesday. The district reported seven new positive cases and 77 quarantines on Monday.
It did not list any new campuses shifting to remote learning.
Four out of six campuses within Hope Public Schools now have off-site classes through the Thanksgiving holiday after more teachers were quarantined because of positive test results or probable close contacts, Superintendent Bobby Hart said.
Two additional schools in the district, Hope Academy of Public Service and Yerger Middle School, pivoted to remote learning Monday until Nov. 30. Fifty percent of certified staff members in those buildings have tested positive or are quarantined, Hart said.
Hope High School and the Creative Action Team School still have on-site classes, Hart said.
“I am grateful next week is Thanksgiving, but I am also apprehensive that next week is Thanksgiving,” he said. “I am nervous about what it will look like, not just in our school district, but in our county and in the region.”
Hart said he feels like people in the Hope community “have grown weary” from adhering to safety precautions.
“They have gotten tired and let their guards down,” he said, adding that he is even more concerned as the weather grows colder and more activities move indoors.
“Basketball season has me petrified,” Hart said. “Every home basketball game or road basketball game has the potential to be a super-spreader event.”
Benton Junior High, part of Benton School District, shifted to off-site learning Tuesday until Nov. 30, “due to covid-19 exposure,” the district announced on its website.
Because of an increase in cases, Stuttgart High School pivoted to remote learning Tuesday and today. Custodial workers are using the two days of off-site learning to disinfect the school, Rick Gales, Stuttgart School District superintendent, said in a note to parents.
The entire Fordyce School District shifted off-campus for the rest of this week until the Monday after Thanksgiving because of rising cases, Superintendent Judy Hubbell said in a note posted on the district’s Facebook page.
Fordyce’s seventh-grade and junior high basketball teams have “all been quarantined due to covid issues,” Hubbell said, adding that several other students in different buildings have tested positive.
“The number of students and staff impacted is such that we do not feel we can effectively and safely conduct face-to-face learning,” the superintendent said.
Booneville Junior High in the Booneville School District shifted to off-site learning Tuesday through the Thanksgiving holiday “due to a high number of staff members who are required to quarantine due to contact tracing as well as a lack of substitutes available to fill the positions,” the district said on its website.
The district said all athletic events would be held as scheduled.
Brookland Elementary is moving to virtual-only learning today through the end of the week, Brookland Public Schools announced on Facebook. The district said the decision was made “due to the rapid increase in the number of quarantined staff and students.”
Seventh graders attending White Hall Middle School and third, fourth, and fifth graders at Hardin Elementary, both in the White Hall School District, will pivot to virtual instruction Thursday, returning to campus Nov. 30, the district announced on Facebook.
Julia Lee Moore Elementary, part of the Conway district, closed for face-to-face learning Tuesday until Nov. 30 after “an increase in the number of covid cases and students and staff who have to be quarantined as a result of exposure,” the school said in a Facebook post.
“We ask for your support and cooperation as we make this decision in the best interest of our staff and our students,” the post said. “Please help us by limiting your students’ group interactions and activities outside of school.”