Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Wednesday by 1,962 -- setting a new high for a one-day increase for the third time in a seven-day span.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 14, to 2,126.
After reaching record levels for the previous five days, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 fell by nine, to 801.
The number of those patients who were on ventilators fell by 11 -- from a record 127 as of Tuesday to 116 as of Wednesday.
"There was a small decline in hospitalizations but the high number of cases is a profoundly serious reminder of the emergency that continues," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement on the day's numbers.
He said he and first lady Susan Hutchinson "just spoke about our holiday plans and we are taking extra precautions and limiting the number."
"Plan safely," the Republican governor said.
Wednesday was the first time the state's count of confirmed and probable cases had risen by more than 1,900 in a single day.
The previous record for a one-day increase was the 1,870 cases added to the state's tally on Friday.
That broke a record that had been set just a day earlier, when the state's case count rose by 1,548.
"The numbers today are very alarming," state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said. "It's not a good sign for the rest of November and December."
She said the virus continues to spread at small gatherings and large events where people aren't taking precautions such as staying 6 feet from one another and wearing masks.
A recent Christian motorcycle rally in western Arkansas, for instance, has been linked to dozens of cases, she said.
"I think that we're having community spread," Dillaha said. "I'm also concerned about having large clusters because people are carrying on with social events where they're not practicing social distancing or wearing face masks.
"The larger the event, of course, the more likely spread is to happen."
The cases added to Arkansas' tally included 1,207 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.
The other 755 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state's cumulative case count rose to 126,197.
That comprised 113,943 confirmed cases and 12,254 probable ones.
At record levels since Thursday, the number of confirmed or probable cases that were considered active rose by 817, to 13,691.
That reflected the new cases, 1,130 Arkansans who were newly classified as having recovered and one person with an active infection who died of reasons unrelated to covid-19.
The state's death toll rose by 13, to 1,947, among confirmed cases and by one, to 179, among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths rose by seven, to 861.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized with the virus in the state rose by 56, to 7,635.
The number of virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by six, to 882.
Over a rolling-seven day period, the average number of cases added to the state's tally each day set a record for the seventh straight day as it rose by 96, to 1,484.
Health Department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said more than 50 cases have been linked to the Christian Motorcyclists Association event near Mena that drew about 2,500 people from across the country.
A number of those who tested positive were residents of other states, she said.
"We have notified other state health departments about the event," Mirivel said in an email.
Although events involving more than 100 people are required to have a plan approved by the Health Department, Dillaha said the motorcycle event was exempt from the requirement because it was a religious gathering.
The Health Department shared its guidelines with the organizers, but they appeared not to follow them, Dillaha said.
"They didn't social-distance or wear masks," she said of the attendees.
"We've had discussions with [the organizers] as a result of this event, and they have subsequently changed plans for other events," Dillaha added.
Holly Ogden, who is listed on the motorcycle organization's website as its executive international ambassador, called the rally "a wonderful, God-filled event with many people getting saved and people reconnecting with the spirit of God."
She said "a very small percentage" of the people who attended tested positive for the virus, and she declined to discuss what precautions were in place.
"We have nothing that I want to go on the record with with an article designed to make us as a religious organization look like we were unprepared or are a super-spreader," she said.
"I know there've been plenty of protests, plenty of comments about Halloween that also had coronavirus come out of it, so I'm not interested in having a newspaper smear our name for the sake of more coronavirus hype."
A coalition of health care providers in Washington and Benton counties issued a statement on Wednesday expressing concern about the rising number of hospitalizations.
From Friday to Tuesday, the number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 in the two counties rose 36%, to 86, they said.
On Wednesday, the number fell to 78, which was still a 24% increase from Friday.
"We are concerned that with COVID fatigue, going into colder weather and the holidays that people will relax the safety practices that help combat the virus," Eric Pianalto, president of Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers, said in the statement.
"I've had to have tough conversations with my own family members about not being able to have our traditional large holiday gatherings this year. It's difficult not to be able to see your loved ones like we once did but the risk of contracting the virus is too great."
The providers said they had been "sharing resources and coordinating services to care for those with COVID-19 and in anticipation of another surge."
"Our teams have been working hard for over eight months, and we do not want to get into a situation that will overburden them and our hospitals," Larry Shackelford, chief executive officer of Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, said.
Dillaha said the state's hospitals are "stretched, very much, and they're having to look at whether or not to implement the surge plan in some places."
She said that typically involves converting regular hospital beds into intensive care beds.
"But they also have to take into consideration what to do to reduce the number of patients in the hospital," she said. "Sometimes that involves decreasing elective surgeries or reducing the number of procedures that are done so that the more urgent cases get priority."
UA SHIFT CONSIDERED
During a faculty senate meeting on Wednesday, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Provost Charles Robinson said the university hasn't ruled out shifting to remote learning after the upcoming Thanksgiving break until classes resume for the spring semester in 2021.
"There is always discussion about that," Robinson said.
"The chancellor remains very flexible relative to this," Robinson said. "We are aware of the [case] numbers, and if we need to pivot, we will."
On its website, the university reported that 32 new cases among students, employees and others who had recently been on campus had been identified since its last update on Monday.
The number of cases that were active rose from 73, to 103.
Participants in the meeting expressed concerns about rising case numbers in Washington County as well as the surrounding area and whether that would affect classes after Thanksgiving.
The university continues to work on different incentive packages to encourage students to get tested, like gift cards to UA bookstores.
Robinson said gift cards to online retailers, like Amazon, might be added as an additional motivator. More than 14,000 tests had been conducted on campus between Aug. 10 and Tuesday, according to the UA website.
"We are still trying to encourage and message out in an appropriate way to get people to take testing more seriously, particularly our students," the provost said.
A number of other universities are pivoting to virtual-only learning until after the new year.
One is Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, which has seen rising case numbers in recent days.
This week, ASU is reporting at least 100 cases on campus, a marked increase from a couple of weeks ago but not yet near the record of 187 active cases the university had in mid-September.
"While the number of employee infections remains low, we are concerned about the increase in the number of student cases," Bill Smith, an ASU spokesperson, said in a Wednesday email. "The rising infection rate on our campus mirrors what we are observing in Craighead County, and it reinforces our decision to transition to mostly-online instruction after Thanksgiving."
Before the start of the fall semester, the University of Arkansas at Monticello decided to have remote classes after Thanksgiving until the start of the spring semester.
The university announced Wednesday that, for the remainder of the academic year, students can opt for credit-only grades rather than a final letter grade.
The university also announced a "closed commencement event" that will be held for 2020 graduates and their ticketed guests before Thanksgiving break, which will include a "modified set-up" that adheres to state Health Department recommendations, Ember Davis, director of marketing and public relations, said.
The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will also shift to online classes after Thanksgiving for the remainder of the fall term. That decision was made prior to the start of classes.
UA-Fort Smith will also have a virtual commencement.
"Though the announcement was made back in July, we feel confident it was the right decision as we continue to see rising numbers of covid-19 across the state," Rachel Putman, the university's associate director for strategic communications, said. "Our focus is always on keeping our students, faculty and staff safe."
Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia reported 25 active cases on campus in its daily case update online Wednesday.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock reported 22 active cases, an increase from 20 at the beginning of the week.
Harding University in Searcy also reported having 56 active cases among students and employees, up from 48 on Tuesday.
In Little Rock, classes at Fulbright and Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools will be held online for at least the rest of this week, the Little Rock School District announced.
In its daily coronavirus report, the district reported that three students at King Elementary and two employees at Fulbright had tested positive for the virus.
An additional 25 students and 11 employees at King and nine employees at Fulbright were required to quarantine due to contact with someone who tested positive, the district reported.
Two students at Southwest High School; one each at Central High, Mann Middle School and Otter Creek Elementary School; and one employee each at Henderson Middle School and Romine Elementary School also tested positive in the 24-hour period ending at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
An additional 44 students and 13 employees at several schools were required to quarantine, the district reported.
The Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District announced shifts to virtual instruction for Murrell Taylor Elementary School and Jacksonville Middle School.
The shift will start today for the middle school and Friday for the elementary school.
At the elementary school, the district said, a staff member tested positive, forcing 15 students and seven employees into quarantine.
The district also learned Wednesday that an employee at the middle school had tested positive, causing nine students to go into quarantine.
Because of Thanksgiving break and a pre-scheduled all-virtual instruction day, students and staff members won't report back to campus until Dec. 1.
Both schools will have services available on campus for students whose families need to send them to school. Those students will complete virtual classes on campus under supervision. Bus routes and food service will continue to operate.
In the neighboring Pulaski County Special School District, administrators announced that Harris Elementary School in the McAlmont community just east of North Little Rock is shifting to all-online for the rest of the week.
The district said it will "reassess the need to extend virtual instruction" beyond that date.
"Harris Elementary has quarantined an increasing number of students and staff in a short period of time who have been identified as probable close contacts. Although the number of actual positive cases for COVID-19 are low, we want to ensure that all students and staff remain healthy and safe," the district said in a news release.
Parents who want their children to have the available two-day meal box should call the school at (501) 234-5607 before 8 a.m. today.
Pickup time is from 10 to 11 a.m. at the school's main entrance, 4424 Arkansas 161 in McAlmont.
Certified and classified staff members who are not on quarantine must report to the campus each day, the district said. The teachers will teach from their classrooms.
WHITE HOUSE REPORT
According to a weekly report from the White House coronavirus task force, Arkansas had 8,356 new coronavirus cases during the week that ended Friday, up from 6,739 the previous week.
The state's rate of new cases per capita last week was the country's 20th-highest for the second week in a row.
The state's 160 virus deaths last week translated to a rate of 5.3 deaths per 100,000 residents, the third-highest rate in the country.
The previous week, the state had 118 deaths, or 3.9 per 100,000, the country's sixth-highest rate.
The report continued to list Arkansas as being in the "red zone" for new cases, meaning it had 101 or more new cases last week per 100,000 residents.
It also continued to list the state as being in the "yellow zone" for the percentage of its PCR tests that were positive.
That percentage rose from 7.6% during the week that ended Oct. 28 to 7.9% during the week that ended Nov. 4.
States were considered to be in the yellow zone for that measure if 5%-7.9% of their tests were positive and in the "orange zone" if 8%-10% of their tests were positive.
The report also listed 23 Arkansas counties as being in the "red zone," meaning they had 101 or more new cases per 100,000 residents last week and that 10.1% or more of their tests were positive.
That was up from 20 counties with the label in the previous week's report.
The report continued to recommend that Arkansas limit dining in restaurants to less than 50% of capacity, instead of 66%, and restrict their hours.
The report also recommended a wider use of rapid antigen testing, saying weekly testing of certain groups, such as teachers or hospital personnel, should be used to identify areas with large numbers of infected people who don't have symptoms.
In those areas, the state should conduct "widespread proactive testing among 18-40 year-olds and isolation of positive cases."
The report also recommended offering "local incentives that would bring forward this age group for testing."
"The silent community spread that precedes and continues throughout surges can only be identified and interrupted through proactive and increased testing and surveillance," the report says.
In a statement in response to questions about the recommendations, Hutchinson said the state is "doing routine repeat testing with various populations including our corrections staff; specific K-12 schools and in our nursing homes.
"This testing includes asymptomatic individuals. Expansion of our existing antigen testing plan will be beneficial and will be considered."
As to placing greater restrictions on restaurants, he said, "The current restaurant limitations are proving to be successful.
"The restaurants not in compliance are subject to fine and other actions. The enforcement efforts currently in operation are proving to be beneficial."
At his weekly news conference on the pandemic on Tuesday, Hutchinson said he didn't want to penalize businesses, such as restaurants, that are following the Health Department's rules.
That would put people out of work while the virus continued to spread at private social gatherings that can't be regulated, he said.
He said he would be watching the state's hospitalization numbers to determine whether more restrictions are needed.
"If the hospitals are flooded, then you've got to say what more can we do," Hutchinson said. "So that's something we'll continue to watch."
The state's count of confirmed and probable cases rose by more than 100 in five counties on Wednesday.
It rose by 177 in Pulaski County, 161 in Benton County, 141 in Washington County, 137 in Garland County and 115 in Sebastian County.
The case count rose by 93 in Saline County, 70 in Craighead County, 65 in Faulkner County and 62 in White County.
Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department's count of cases rose by 34.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said the number of cases among inmates rose by 25, to 328, at the McPherson Unit in Newport; by nine, to 1,418, at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern; by five, to 465, at the North Central Unit in Calico Rock; by five, to 84, at the Northeast Arkansas Community Correction Center in Osceola; by four, to 122, at the Omega Supervision Sanction Center in Malvern; by three, to 325, at the Pine Bluff Unit; and by two, to 10, at the Southwest Arkansas Community Correction Center in Texarkana.
Of those prisons, the McPherson and North Central units had the largest number of cases that were active as of Wednesday, with 184 each.
The Ouachita River Unit has the next-highest active-case total, at 115, followed by the Pine Bluff Unit, which had 24.