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Arkansas virus tally climbs by 795, now tops 60,000

Take care, governor reminds by Andy Davis | August 30, 2020 at 8:32 a.m.
This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19.

Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases increased by 795 on Saturday, with the cumulative total topping 60,000, according to the state Department of Health.

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The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the department, rose by 16, to 772.

Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in the state fell by 23, to 384.

The patients included 90 who were on a ventilator, down from 95 a day earlier.

The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 60,378.

"There are 795 new COVID-19 cases in AR which reminds us it is still easy to catch the virus if we are careless or reckless," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.

"I do like our high number of tests & the continued decline of hospitalizations is good to hear. Please be responsible & protect others. Have a safe weekend."

The increase in cases on Saturday was the second-highest of the week, after a rise of 838 cases on Friday.

Over a rolling seven-day period, the average number of cases added to the state's count each day rose Saturday by 35, to 597.

Meanwhile, the number of cases that were considered active fell by 23, to 5,473 as 802 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.

"I'm really glad to see the hospitalizations decreasing," state epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said Saturday.

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"The overall trend is in a direction where we're having a little bit of an uptick, but we're much lower than we were earlier in the month for our active cases in the community. That, I think, is being reflected in the decrease in hospitalizations."

That decrease came despite an increase of 35 newly admitted patients, indicating that 58 patients had been discharged or died.

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The cumulative number of Arkansans who had ever been hospitalized with the virus rose to 4,177, while the number who had ever been on ventilators rose by two, to 540.

Dillaha said patients who become hospitalized typically do so 10 days or more after they become infected, so the hospitalizations could creep up again if the upward trend in new cases continues.

"I am hoping it will not rise," Dillaha said of the growth rate of the state's cases. "I'm watching because I have concerns about a potential increase with the college campuses opening again and [K-12] education.

"It may depend on how well people are able to follow the social-distancing guidelines and not engage in risky behaviors."

The number of active cases has generally fallen since it peaked at 7,387 on Aug. 9, while hospitalizations are down from a high of 526 on Aug. 4.

The Health Department also reported that 7,156 polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests of Arkansans were conducted on Friday, up from an initial report of 6,360 that were conducted a day earlier.

As of Friday, 169,724 PCR tests had been conducted this month -- an average of 6,061 a day.

Hutchinson has set a goal of having 190,000 such tests conducted this month, or an average of 6,129 tests a day, in addition to 10,000 antigen tests, which are generally quicker but less accurate.

As of Monday, 3,610 Arkansans had been tested through antigen tests this month. The Health Department hadn't released more recent information about antigen tests as of Saturday.

Last month, an average of 6,285 Arkansans a day received PCR tests.

CASES BY COUNTY

The Health Department's count of cases, as tracked on its online dashboard, increased on Saturday by 135 in Washington County; 75 in Benton County; 63 in Pulaski County; and 57 in Craighead County.

The number of cases for which information on the person's county of residence was unavailable increased by 86, to 901.

Pulaski County had the largest number of active cases, 694; followed by Jefferson County with 321; Sebastian County with 301; Craighead County with 256; Benton County with 238; and Washington County with 216.

Among prison and jail inmates, the state's count of virus cases increased by 108.

Such increases can reflect new cases or ones that were added earlier but not immediately classified as coming from a jail or prison.

Cases among inmates often don't show up in the state's overall total until several days after the test is performed, after information from laboratory reports is entered into a state database.

The Health Department's count of virus deaths increased by three in both Pulaski and Crittenden counties, raising the toll to 103 in Pulaski County and to 33 in Crittenden County.

The department's count of virus deaths rose by two each in Washington, Benton, and Crawford counties.

That brought the total coronavirus deaths to 58 in Washington County, 50 in Benton County, and eight in Crawford County.

The virus deaths added Saturday included the 29th in Garland County; the 12th in Saline County; the 11th in White County; the 11th in Lee County; and the third in Boone County.

The department also lowered its count of virus deaths in Polk County by one, to three.

"The most common reason a death is removed is because it is attributed to another county or possibly another state," Health Department spokesman Meg Mirivel said in an email.

Among nursing-home residents, the department's count of virus deaths increased by seven, to 269.

The count of deaths increased by one, to 38, among Arkansans age 25-44; by four, to 182, among those age 45-64; and by 11, to 552, among those age 65 and older.

CONTACT TRACING

According to a Health Department report, 33.1% of the state's cases as of Thursday didn't have a link with a suspected source, such as a known cluster of cases or contact with a person known to have tested positive.

That percentage, which doesn't include cases still under investigation, defined as those that were reported in the previous five days, was down slightly from the previous week but still up from a low of 19.4% in early June.

"It's kind of a measure for us to use in terms of how well are we doing our contact tracing," Dillaha said Saturday.

[Interactive Arkansas map not showing up above? Click here to see it: arkansasonline.com/arvirus]

"I think that as our contracts [for workers to do contact tracing] continue to ramp up and our contact tracers gain more experience it will go down."

Dillaha said the percentage crept up in part as a result of delays in getting test results from commercial laboratories. The recent improvement in those turnaround times should help, she said.

Under contracts with the Health Department, the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care has 302 contact tracers and General Dynamics Information Technology has 283, Dillaha said.

She said the companies are expected to increase those staffing numbers to 350 each.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health also has 61 contact tracers who investigate cases at colleges and universities, including 29 contact tracers based in Northwest Arkansas, Dillaha said.

POULTRY WORKERS

While the poultry industry was once seen as a driver of the state's growth in cases, the spread of the virus has since become more generalized throughout the community, Dillaha said.

After topping 800 in June, the number of active cases among poultry workers had fallen to just 129 as of Thursday, according to Health Department reports.

From Monday to Thursday, the cumulative number of workers listed as having tested positive increased by 69, to 4,925.

But the number of infections that were listed as being active fell by two as 71 more workers were listed as having recovered.

Only four poultry companies were listed having five or more cases among employees, down from more than 20 companies in June.

"My understanding is that many of the poultry companies have really taken the situation seriously and are doing more testing," Dillaha said.

"They've made changes to their processes to decrease the risk of transmission at work and they're supporting workers to quarantine or isolate by paying them when they're off so they don't feel compelled to work when they're sick."

She said workers also are taking more precautions when they aren't at work to reduce the spread of the virus.

A department report listed the state as having 64 active cases among nursing-home residents and 590 among prison or jail inmates as of Thursday.

Triumph Airborne Structures in Hot Springs, Global Food Group in Clinton and JW Aluminum Co. in Russellville were added Thursday to a list of nonpoultry businesses with at least five active cases among employees.

Triumph Airborne Structures, an airplane repair business, had 10 cases, all of which were active, according to a Health Department report.

Global Food Group, which makes prepared foods, was listed as having seven active cases and one other worker who had recovered.

JW Aluminum was listed as having six cases, all of which were active.

Wilson Brothers Lumber Co. in Rison was also on the list. It had 15 cases, including five that were active.

Those numbers hadn't changed from the ones that were listed in a Health Department report on Monday.

CAUTION URGED

At his near-daily news conference on the pandemic on Friday, Hutchinson said he views the recent growth rate of cases in the state as "flat" and for the most part not concentrated in a particular setting or geographic area.

"So that means that anywhere you go in in the state of Arkansas you could expose yourself if you're not careful and you don't protect yourself," he said. "So we look at, should we change any action? And I think we're on the right path, but it's just a constant reminder for everybody to follow the guidelines."

Health Secretary Jose Romero said a lack of adherence to those guidelines was apparent last week, when he traveled to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, where he led a meeting of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

"It was obvious that even in the airport, even with signs that mentioned the governor's mandate, individuals were not wearing their masks, or were wearing their masks inappropriately," Romero said Friday. "I think that that is very important, that we have to take this personal responsibility of using the mask any time we're in public.

"When I can stand in line and have two or three people behind me not using the mask while others are still using it, that shows that we still haven't -- that our message still hasn't permeated throughout the community yet."

TESTS ENCOURAGED

According to a map that Hutchinson displayed at Friday's news conference, 29.8% of the tests performed recently in Searcy County were positive. The tests were given over a two-week period ending Wednesday.

That was the highest rate among the state's 75 counties, followed by Little River County, where 25.9% of the tests were positive, and Stone County with a rate of 23.2%.

In Pulaski County, by contrast, just 7.8% of the tests were positive during that period.

"When you have those smaller counties, the positivity rate can fluctuate greatly due to the small population, small number of individuals who are getting tested," Austin Porter, the Health Department's deputy chief science officer said.

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"For instance, if 10 people get tested in Lonoke County or something like that and two of them test positive, that will give you a 20% positivity rate right there."

Romero said a high rate points to the need for more testing.

"The more tests we have, the better our data will be to give you the test positivity rate," he said.

"If a congregation decided to get tested because they had an exposure event and that was a major testing of that county, that's going to lead to skewing the numbers to very high positivity. So we want the entire county to start doing it."

He added that the Health Department will test anyone at one of its health units across the state at no charge to the patient, although the patient's health insurance plan may be billed if the patient is insured.

"We don't care if you have any symptoms," Romero said. "We don't care if you've traveled. We don't care if you had exposure. Cost is not an issue. We want to test you. Walk into our local health units and get tested."

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