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Virus hospitalizations rise in Arkansas; new cases dip

by Jeannie Roberts, Lara Farrar | November 10, 2020 at 7:21 a.m.
A nurse conducts a coronavirus test in August at the UAMS drive-thru screening site in Little Rock. More photos at arkansasonline.com/819test/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Covid-19 hospitalizations in Arkansas hit a record high on Monday, but the number of new cases fell below 1,000 for the first time in six days.

As of Monday, there were 786 covid-19 patients hospitalized, after 45 new hospitalizations were reported by the Arkansas Department of Health.

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"We continue to see a high level of hospitalizations across the state," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a news release. "This increase can affect everyone, even those who have not contracted COVID-19. We all have a responsibility to our friends, family, and neighbors to do our part as we fight this virus."

Another 945 virus cases were added Monday -- making it the first time in the past six days that daily additions were under 1,000. There were 93 fewer new cases than Sunday's 1,038.

The state typically sees a slightly lower number of new cases on weekends.

Over the past seven days, the state has seen 9,170 new cases, with the highest number of daily cases being 1,870 on Friday.

Deaths attributed to the virus in the state rose by 23, to a total of 2,108.

The number of active cases rose by eight, to 12,488, on Monday to set another record. The previous high was Sunday's 12,480.

The highest number of new covid-19 cases was reported in Pulaski County with 128, followed by Washington County with 79, Independence County with 75, Sebastian County with 56 and Benton County with 49.

Of the new cases reported on Monday, 829 were classified as confirmed based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. The remaining 116 were classified as probable cases.

On Monday, results from 9,358 PCR tests were reported to health officials, plus 721 of the less-sensitive, rapid antigen tests. More than 79,000 PCR tests and more than 10,500 antigen tests have been conducted in Arkansas this month, according to the Health Department.

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Correctional facilities accounted for only one of the confirmed cases reported Monday, according to the Department of Health.

Health officials classified an additional 914 people as having recovered from covid-19 after confirmed diagnoses. A total of 108,201 people in the state have now recovered after confirmed tests.

IN HOSPITALS

Of the state's 9,144 total hospital beds, 2,403 remained available on Monday, according to Health Department data. Of the 1,082 intensive care unit beds in the state, 106 remained available. There were 289 covid-19 patients utilizing ICU beds as of Monday.

"The hospitalizations are following the high rate of cases," said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the state epidemiologist. "The cases we're seeing are the result of Halloween and the events related to the election. In general, our hospitals are being stretched very thin, and staffing is one of the main issues they're experiencing."

Of those hospitalized, 116 are on ventilators -- 13 more than Sunday. Since the pandemic hit the state in March, 869 Arkansans have required ventilator use for covid-19.

Of the 1,072 total ventilators in the state, there were 697 available for use as of Monday, according to state data.

Dillaha said the decision by a doctor to hospitalize a covid-19 patient is based on the severity of symptoms.

"The symptoms that would be most concerning would be difficulty breathing and low oxygenation, the need for oxygen," she said. "Some people, when they have this disease, experience difficulty due to blood clots, and then some people have heart failure. If there's heart failure, that could also result in hospitalization."

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences currently has 35 covid-19 patients, with five on ventilators, according to UAMS spokeswoman Katrina Dupins.

"We are at ICU max, but that is not unusual," Dupins said. "We have a surge plan that we can implement, if needed."

Baptist Health has 132 patients who are covid-19 positive across the hospital system, and about 25% of those are on ventilators, according to Baptist spokeswoman Cara Wade.

"We currently have available hospital beds as well as surge plans if needed to create capacity," Wade said. "We feel that we are meeting our patients' needs with quality safe care, though staffing for health care is always a challenge and something we deal with on a daily basis."

Wade added that Baptist Health has numerous ventilators across the state and also has the ability to create more machines by converting anesthesia and BiPAP machines if needed.

Dillaha also urged Arkansans to get flu shots -- especially this year as the strain on medical providers is already stretched to the limit.

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"Every year, we have a large number of hospitalizations due to influenza," she said. "Many of those hospitalizations could've been prevented had the patient gotten the flu shot."

According to the latest flu report, released on Oct. 31 by the state Health Department, there were 179 influenza cases reported and one flu-related death since Sept. 27, when the flu season began.

About 1% of patients visiting emergency rooms and 2% of outpatient visits were for flu-related illnesses, state data shows. There have been about 13 flu-related hospitalizations since Sept. 27.

Dillaha said the path to reducing hospitalizations from covid-19 is clear.

"One of the things as a state that we need to do is to strengthen our resolve to address this pandemic and do whatever we need to do to protect ourselves, our families and our communities by doing the things that work," she said. "And the things that work are social distancing, wearing face masks and avoiding large groups of people -- especially groups greater than 10. We need to take that seriously in order to bring these numbers under control."

SCHOOL CASES

Coronavirus cases continue to increase in public schools around the state, with the Department of Health reporting 1,418 cumulative active cases on Monday, an increase from the 1,259 cases reported by the Health Department last Thursday.

The Health Department updates covid-19 case numbers in public schools and colleges and universities on Mondays and Thursdays.

Over the past three reporting periods, including Monday's new data, cases have continued to climb.

Eighty-four school systems have five or more positive cases, up from the 80 districts reported Thursday, according to Health Department data, which does not individually list schools that have fewer than five cases but does count those cases in the cumulative totals.

With 88 cases, the Springdale School District has the most positives, followed by the Fort Smith School District with 56 and the Rogers School District with 55.

The Little Rock School District also reported an increase in cases Monday in its daily virus update. The district reported seven new cases as of Monday afternoon and 89 people quarantined. Over the weekend, the district counted nine new cases and 41 in quarantine.

EDUCATIONAL SHIFTS

The number of schools shifting to remote learning is increasing, with some districts opting to pivot to virtual-only classes until after Thanksgiving as part of an effort to mitigate the spread of covid-19.

Siloam Springs Intermediate School in the Siloam Springs School District will not return to class until Nov. 30, the Monday after Thanksgiving break. Students in the elementary school shifted to remote learning Monday after 10 students and one faculty member tested positive in the intermediate school, said Shane Patrick, the district's assistant superintendent of operations.

"We are not sure why we are seeing a flare-up [in the intermediate school], but we want to make sure we are preventing a community-spread situation within that building," Patrick said. "The majority of those kids have siblings in other schools and then family members, so we wanted to contain it as much as possible."

Northside Elementary, also part of Siloam Springs School District, is entering its second week of virtual learning after several faculty members tested positive.

Northside students will return to on-site learning on next Monday, Patrick said.

"We have seen not just in our school district but overall in Siloam Springs an upward trend for positive cases," he said. "Once that happens, you do your contact tracing, and the web just keeps growing."

The Mineral Springs School District is shifting to remote classes until Nov. 30 after a teacher tested positive over the weekend, resulting in the quarantine of at least 10 other faculty members, said Billy Lee, interim superintendent.

"We felt like with the number of teachers who could test positive later, it was best to go virtual now," Lee said. "We are trying to stop any more cases. It is not a kid problem, it is a teacher problem."

Lee said most of the quarantined staff members were exposed during lunch in a teacher's lounge on Friday.

The Norfork School District sent all grades home until the Monday after Thanksgiving, according to an announcement posted on the district's Facebook page.

"It is our hope that after the Thanksgiving Holiday that everyone will return back to campus safely and ready to continue onsite learning," the announcement said.

The Westside Consolidated School District in Jonesboro is shifting its middle and high schools to virtual learning starting today until Nov. 30, according to a letter from Superintendent Scott Gauntt that was posted on the district's website Monday.

"Over the past week, we have seen a very large increase in both the number of positive cases on campus and the corresponding rise in students and staff being quarantined for close contact to persons with a positive designation," Gauntt said.

The district reported 24 cases on Monday, resulting in 232 students and faculty members in quarantine.

"These totals have grown significantly over the past few days," Gauntt said.

The junior high and high school of the Cotter School District will have virtual-only learning for the remainder of this week through Thanksgiving break, according to announcements on the district's Facebook page.

Two students tested positive Monday, adding to a growing number of students and faculty members already quarantined, the district said.

Peake Elementary School, part of the Arkadelphia district, shifted to online instruction from Monday through the end of this week, according to the school's Facebook page. Students are scheduled to return next Monday.

The Prairie Grove School District has shifted to remote learning Monday through Wednesday after 10 staff members, mostly working in support services, tested positive, said David Kellogg, assistant superintendent of transportation, maintenance and facilities.

Those cases resulted in an additional 30 quarantined staff members, Kellogg said.

"It hit bus drivers, and it really hit cafeteria workers," he said. "We had this unusual combination where we are limping along."

Ouachita High School in the Ouachita School District will have off-site classes starting Wednesday with students returning next Monday after several teachers were listed as probable close contacts to positive cases, Superintendent Larry Newsom said.

"Right now, we have six staff members and quite a few kids quarantined," Newsom said.

Booneville High School, part of the Booneville district, is pivoting to virtual learning today for the rest of the week "due to the number of students who are required to quarantine through contact tracing," an announcement posted on the district's website on Monday said.

HIGHER EDUCATION

Cumulative cases on college campuses numbered 530 in Monday's educational data from the Health Department, an increase from the 429 cases reported Thursday.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, is at the top of the list with 98, followed by the University of Central Arkansas with 62 and Arkansas State University in Jonesboro with 41.

Data updated on UA-Fayetteville's website, which differs from Health Department numbers because of varied recording methods, showed 73 active cases on campus Monday.

ASU reported a sharp increase, with 91 cases on campus Monday, more than double the caseload of 39 that ASU reported a week ago.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock also reported a noticeable increase, with 20 active cases on campus, according to data updated daily on UALR's website. That number eclipsed the 15 cases UALR documented for the entire month of October.

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