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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson removes his mask before giving a coronavirus update at the state Capitol. Hutchinson said he’s considering tightening a Health Department directive covering indoor events such as weddings, concerts and plays, as well as movie theaters and other entertainment venues. More photos at arkansasonline.com/124gov/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he's considering placing stricter limits on indoor gatherings as the state's count of coronavirus cases rose by almost 2,800, setting a new one-day high.

At a news conference, Hutchinson also said he had made a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 10 beds at the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock to expand the state's capacity to care for coronavirus patients.

He also said the state would adopt guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowing for shorter quarantine periods for people who have been near someone with the virus.

Instead of quarantining for 14 days, the guidelines allow people without symptoms to quarantine for just 10 days, or for seven if they have a negative test for the virus.

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Despite calls by some doctors to close bars and restaurants to limit the spread of the virus, Hutchinson reiterated Thursday that he doesn't want to do that because he hasn't seen evidence that the virus is spreading in those businesses.

But he said he's considering tightening a state Department of Health directive covering indoor events such weddings, concerts and plays, as well as movie theaters and other entertainment venues.

Since June 15, the directive has required events with more than 100 people to submit plans to the Health Department for approval.

"One of the things that we're looking at, and I'm giving everybody a head's up on this, that we may be announcing that that requirement's going to be reduced down so that if you're going to have a gathering of 20 people indoors in a social environment or in an event atmosphere, then you to have to get a plan approved by the Department of Health," Hutchinson said.

Gallery: Governors' Coronavirus Meeting

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Health Secretary Jose Romero said officials have discussed lowering the threshold so that organizers of events with more than 10 people would be required to submit plans.

Hutchinson said he's also talked to Health Department officials about increasing the enforcement of the department's rules for such events.

"We want that oversight. We want [Health Department Environmental Health Branch Chief] Terry Paul's team to be out there to a greater extent," Hutchinson said. "We've talked about that. We hope to have some announcements in regard to that next week."

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Health Department, rose Thursday by 33, to 2,555.

After setting records for the previous four days, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 fell by 16, to 1,072.

Those patients included 190 who were on ventilators, up from 186 a day earlier.

Gallery: Lonoke Covid Testing

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The 2,789 cases added to the state's tallies exceeded the previous record for a one-day increase by more than 400 cases.

That record had been the 2,348 cases that were added on Nov. 26.

BEDS REQUEST

Hutchinson said his request for bed space at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital comprised five intensive care unit beds and five medical/surgical beds "so we can have an expanded capacity here in Arkansas."

Earlier in the week, he announced that the state would implement a system, similar to its trauma system, that would help match covid-19 patients to hospitals with available bed space and other resources.

The VA beds "will be particularly helpful as we bring TraumaComm online that will help us to allocate the covid patients among a broader range of facilities that can offer the bed space that's needed," he said Thursday.

The beds will cost $1.9 million over 30 days, with the state providing 25% of the cost, or about $475,000, and the federal government paying the rest.

Hutchinson said he hoped for the state's request to be approved "within the next 24 hours."

Melody Daniel, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety's Division of Emergency Management, said the request was submitted by Little Rock on behalf of the Metro Healthcare Emergency Preparedness Coalition.

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The beds would be available to covid-19 patients who wouldn't otherwise be eligible for care from the VA system, she said.

"The intent would be to alleviate strain from other hospitals throughout the state that have a covid patient that need to make a bed in their hospital available for someone else," Daniel said.

Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said the state's share would come from a disaster response fund that receives a $13 million annual appropriation.

Appearing via video at the news conference, Chris Barber, chief executive of St Bernards Healthcare in Jonesboro, said, "The health care system will be stretched and challenged at a level we've never experienced before," over the next two or three months.

He called on Arkansans to take precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding gatherings and large crowds.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it's critical over the next couple of months to really preserve our resources as we enter this time period," he said.

QUARANTINE RULES

Hutchinson said the modified CDC quarantine rules were designed to ease the burden on those affected and encourage compliance with the requirement and cooperation with contact tracers.

He said data shows that more than seven days after coming in contact with an infected person, "there's a much lower percent chance, a very small percent chance, of becoming positive."

Education Secretary Johnny Key said the change is welcome news for districts that continue to struggle with staffing shortages caused by employees having to quarantine. In some cases, those shortages have caused schools or districts to temporarily shift to all-virtual instruction.

"Every day we can salvage and save for on-site learning for our students will be a better day of education with them," Key said.

In an emailed statement, Carol Fleming, head of the Arkansas Education Association, said the teachers union supports the scientific data behind the new guidelines.

"As the pandemic surges, and more educators lose their lives, our primary goal is to keep our entire school community safe," Fleming said. "Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have relied on the expertise of doctors and scientists when determining the best way to stem the spread in our schools."

Guidelines issued by the Health Department last month already allowed "essential" health care workers who were required to quarantine to return to work earlier than 14 days if they had a negative polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, from a sample collected at least five days after exposure and if they took other precautions.

In correctional institutions and long-term-care settings, people leaving quarantine before 14 days must have negative tests "because in those centers the spread can occur quickly, and can have, in particular, in nursing homes, devastating effects," Romero said.

He said the department recommends antigen tests for those wanting to exit quarantine and has the tests available at its local health units around the state.

People can go to work or church, but should avoid "nonessential activities" until the full 14 days has expired, since there's still a chance they could have the virus, he said.

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"We don't want them going to the store. We don't want them going to the movie theater," Romero said. "That is still prohibited until the end of the 14 days."

PRISON OUTBREAKS

The cases added to the state's tallies Thursday included 2,017 that were confirmed through PCR tests.

The other 772 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.

The state's cumulative tally of cases rose to 164,310.

That comprised 142,722 confirmed cases and 21,588 probable ones.

The number of cases that were active rose by 731, to 17,019, as more than 2,000 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.

Hutchinson said 32 of the state's 75 counties had more than 20 new cases each.

The largest increases were in Washington County, which had 267 new cases, Benton County, which had 257, Pulaski County, which had 223, Sebastian County, which had 115, and Craighead County, which had 106.

Among prison and jail inmates, the state's count of cases rose by 102.

State Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said the number of cases among inmates rose by 76, to 365, at the Grimes Unit near Newport and by 30, to 215, at the Tucker Unit in Jefferson County.

The Ouachita River Unit in Malvern and the Varner Unit in Lincoln County each had one new case, bringing the totals to 1,428 at the Malvern prison and 757 at the Varner Unit.

Of those prisons, the Grimes Unit had the largest number of cases that were active, 174, followed by the Tucker Unit with 42, the Varner Unit with 11 and the Ouachita River Unit with five.

The state's death toll from the virus rose by 31, to 2,343, among confirmed cases and by two, to 212, among probable cases.

Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths rose by 14, to 1,078.

The number of people who had ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 96, to 9,206.

The number of virus patients who had ever been on ventilator rose by 23, to 1,025.

ALARMS RAISED

The chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the Health Department's former chief medical officer were among those sounding an alarm Thursday about the state's rise in cases.

Chancellor Cam Patterson, in a string of posts on social media, said hospitals are holding their own for now but have a limited capacity to care for new patients.

"Every day, we become more and more concerned about our ability to manage what lies ahead," Patterson said.

Arkansas hospitals are at a crossroads now, working hard to "stretch our resources to keep patients alive while at the same time discussing possible locations for a temporary morgue when ours is full, as it was this past weekend," he said.

A few days ago, UAMS had to search for makeshift space for the overflow of bodies that no longer fit in the medical center's morgue, said UAMS spokeswoman Leslie Taylor.

"We were able to use other space in our Spine & Neurosciences Institute. We are no longer using that additional area," Taylor said. "However, as we look to the future with predictions of a worsening surge in cases and increase in deaths, we are discussing what other options might be if conditions dictate that we need more space than we currently have."

The Health Department does not keep a collective record of how many morgues are in the state or their maximum capacity, said Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill.

However, some regions in the state are reaching capacity and looking for other alternatives to store bodies.

Washington County Coroner Roger Morris said last month that he borrowed a refrigerated "morgue trailer" from the state Crime Laboratory to prepare for the surge in deaths from the virus.

In the spring, Washington County had also installed an addition to its morgue to hold the bodies of covid-19 victims.

That county has seen nearly 180 deaths attributed to covid-19 since the pandemic began in March.

Gary Wheeler, the Health Department's former chief medical officer and a former senior medical adviser to Romero, said in an opinion column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Americans had failed to make "trivial sacrifices," such as avoiding crowds and wearing masks. He blamed a lack of leadership.

He called on federal and state leaders to "step up and unite us using their legislative and bully pulpit authority to lead us in 'sacrifices' to bring this pandemic under control."

"That includes requiring and convincing the public to stop our gatherings by closing bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses," Wheeler wrote.

FEWER BEDS

On Thursday, the state dropped 43 hospital beds from its inventory, leaving 2,298 available -- 86 fewer than Wednesday. That number of hospital beds in the state includes a few hundred beds in psychiatric or rehabilitation facilities that are not used for covid-19 care.

Out of the state's 1,154 intensive care unit beds, only 79 -- or fewer than 7% -- remain open. There were 375 covid-19 patients in the state's intensive care units as of Thursday.

The state's inventory of ventilators went up by 17 to 1,053, increasing the number of ventilators available by 15 to 645.

Patterson referred to the pandemic forecast from the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, which he said indicates that "the density of COVID-19 infections exceeds each of our abilities -- yours & mine -- to avoid contact with actively individuals in our state whenever we venture outside our homes.

"They predict an exponential increase in coronavirus deaths in the next two weeks, more than we saw in the first four months of the pandemic," Patterson wrote in his tweets.

The state may soon exceed the number of beds, ventilators and health care providers to care for those who are acutely ill, whether they are victims of covid-19 or critical illness like diabetes and heart disease, Patterson said.

The chancellor asked Arkansans to "get super serious" about the basic principles of masking, social distancing and avoiding exposure to individuals outside of families.

"Maybe there is still a chance to avert the worst aspects of the calamity that we see looming in front of us. Your behavior, individually & collectively, will still make a difference. Exercise your right to be a good citizen in what will otherwise be the darkest winter in our lifetimes," Patterson said. "Because if our trajectory in Arkansas does not change, family funerals may take the place of family celebrations this holiday season. Let's do everything we can together as Arkansans not to let that happen."

Information for this article was contributed by Lara Farrar of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Breunna Lewis (above), a medical assistant for UAMS, administers a covid-19 test Thursday at the Lonoke Community Center as the number of cases in the state hit a new high of 2,789. More photos at arkansasonline.com/124covid/.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Breunna Lewis (above), a medical assistant for UAMS, administers a covid-19 test Thursday at the Lonoke Community Center as the number of cases in the state hit a new high of 2,789. More photos at arkansasonline.com/124covid/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Health Secretary Jose Romero (left), at Thursday’s briefing with Gov. Asa Hutchison, said officials are considering limiting the size of indoor gatherings and requiring events with more than 10 people to submit plans to the Health Department.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Health Secretary Jose Romero (left), at Thursday’s briefing with Gov. Asa Hutchison, said officials are considering limiting the size of indoor gatherings and requiring events with more than 10 people to submit plans to the Health Department. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Coronavirus daily updates and cumulative covid-19 cases in Arkansas

Print Headline: State cases shoot up by 2,789

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