Arkansas COVID cases set new records; mask use in schools encouraged

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,006 views 

With a record daily rise in COVID-19 cases and a record for active cases, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday (Jan. 4) he is activating an additional 50 National Guard members to help with testing and is encouraging school administrators to consider requiring mask use.

The governor also said in his weekly press briefing that the state’s health system is “facing a new set of challenges” because of the higher rate of transmissibility with the Omicron variant. The rise in cases not only reduces hospital bed capacity but in some cases creates staffing challenges with rising infection among health care workers.

The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) on Tuesday reported a record 6,562 new COVID cases in the previous 24 hours, bringing the cumulative total to 581,134. Active cases rose by 5,118 to a record 32,280.

“This (record case numbers) tells us we are entering a period of probably the greatest risk and the greatest challenge that we’ve faced during the pandemic,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “We have Omicron here that is less severe, but at the same time the sheer volume of numbers as it moves forward gives us challenges we haven’t faced before.”

Gov. Hutchinson also said he has no plans to re-instate an emergency health declaration or push for mask mandates.

Arkansas’ previous surge peaked in late December 2020 and January 2021 with a record 4,304 new cases reported on Jan. 1, a record 27,822 active cases posted Jan. 9, and a record 1,371 hospitalizations reported on Jan. 11. A record of 66 deaths was reported on Dec. 29.

There are 775 COVID hospitalizations as of Tuesday, up 53 from the previous day. Patients on ventilators rose by three to 118. Deaths rose by 27 to 9,248. The ADH reported 42 available ICU beds among the 1,129 in the state. A record low of eight available ICU beds was recorded on Aug. 9, 2021.

The ADH also reports that 53.1% of eligible Arkansans – those above age 5 – are fully vaccinated, with 12.5% partially vaccinated. Gov. Hutchinson said the low rate of vaccination is “a little bit puzzling to me with the number of cases out there.” The data shows that 86.8% of hospitalizations and 85% of deaths are among the unvaccinated.

The additional 50 National Guard members will help with testing, and state officials are working with the Arkansas Hospital Association “to identify the greatest area of need,” the governor said. The new activation follows 10 Guard members previously activated to help the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences conduct testing in Little Rock.

“I am looking at this as a January of challenge. … I do believe the Omicron is going to pass through quickly. But we have to deal with it as it goes through, and testing is a big part of that. That’s why we are accelerating that,” Gov. Hutchinson said, adding that he would not hesitate to activate more Guard members to support testing if health system leaders request it.

And noting a 25% reduction in COVID cases in schools with a full mask mandate, Gov. Hutchinson said he encourages school administrators to consider requiring mask use.

Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero said he is concerned, based on the trend in cases among children, with adequate capacity in the Arkansas Children’s Hospital network.

“There is a chance that with a larger number of cases we could overwhelm that system. I am encouraging parents to please vaccinate their children,” Romero said, adding that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has authorized a booster shot for immunocompromised children.

Gov. Hutchinson said the state has already invested $60 million in a “surge plan” to expand hospital bed capacity, and the plan will “pay dividends” if it has to be activated. Little Rock-based Baptist Health is part of the surge plan. The hospital system in August 2021 was approved for $37.68 million in federal COVID relief funds to add 157 hospital beds, with 50 beds in Little Rock and 74 beds at Baptist Health-Van Buren.