Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he plans to appoint a "covid-19 winter task force" to study ways to keep the state's hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by the recent surge in coronavirus cases.
He spoke as the state tally of cases rose by 1,809 -- the third-highest one-day increase since the start of the pandemic.
The state death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 18, to 2,144.
Speaking to city officials and others in a videoconference, Hutchinson said the task force will be responsible for "looking at the winter and our hospitalization levels and what steps we can take to make sure that we don't use up all of our space."
"It's not a good situation to be in whenever a hospital has to tell a surgeon, do you really have an emergency surgery here, because when they come out of surgery, they're going to need a ventilator and we need to save that ventilator or the ICU space for covid patients, and so if you can delay that surgery, let's do it," Hutchinson said.
"That's the kind of adjustments that they have to manage, and while it is manageable for a short period of time, that compromises the health of everyone."
After dipping Wednesday, the number of covid-19 hospitalizations in the state rose by four, to 805. That was still below the record high of 810 patients hospitalized as of Tuesday.
The patients on Thursday included 116 on ventilators, a number that hadn't changed from a day earlier.
Helping hospitals maintain adequate staffing levels is "one of the big challenges," the Republican governor said.
"We've got to look at ways to support the retention of staff so that we're not losing our highly trained, skilled nursing workers to other states that's paying them a little bit more to be a contract worker there," Hutchinson said.
"So we've got to look at the whole realm of responses, and that's one of the things this task force will be looking at."
Later Thursday, Hutchinson's office said that he will hold a news conference today to "make an announcement related to covid-19."
During the videoconference hosted by the Arkansas Municipal League and Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and streamed on Facebook, Hutchinson said the state is working on a "winter ad campaign" to encourage Arkansans to take steps such as wearing masks in public, washing their hands and keeping a safe distance from people from other households.
"If you don't want to shut the economy down -- which I do not -- the solution is to follow the advice of the scientists, and that's what we're advocating for," Hutchinson said.
He called on city officials to help enforce the state's mask mandate, which he said had made "a significant difference" in encouraging Arkansans to take precautions against spreading the virus despite the "enormous blowback" he received from some sheriffs and police chiefs.
He said cities can educate people about the mandate, issue warnings or a write a ticket "if they're just belligerent about it."
Hutchinson's executive order that created the mandate in July requires first-time offenders to receive a written or verbal warning. Subsequent offenses are punishable by a fine of $100-$500.
"To my knowledge, no one has actually gotten a citation for failure to follow the mandate," Hutchinson said.
He reiterated that he doesn't want to place additional restrictions on businesses.
"The only thing that will trigger anything is that if we have to -- we don't have any hospital space to deal with," he said. "Then you have to start making some very, very difficult decisions that you don't want to have to make, and so we need the public to come through on that."
'THE DARKEST DAYS'
Thursday's increase came a day after the state's cases grew by a record 1,962. The previous record for a one-day increase was the 1,870 cases added Nov. 6.
Over a rolling-seven day period, the average number of state cases added each day set a record, rising by 37, to 1,521. It was the eighth-straight day the rolling average set a record.
"The numbers are still very alarming," state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said. "It looks like we are heading into a very difficult winter."
She said recent clusters of cases have been linked to school sports teams, a church in southwestern Arkansas and a restaurant in Hot Springs.
In some instances, the Health Department's ability to investigate and contain outbreaks has been hindered by people's refusal to get tested, she said.
"We run into it on college campuses as well as other social groups who don't want to cause their contacts problems," she said. "They don't get tested so they don't have to notify their social contacts that they've been exposed."
Joe Thompson, chief executive of the Center for Health Improvement, said that more than 10% of the recent coronavirus tests that have been performed in the state have been positive when considering both polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests and less-sensitive antigen tests, indicating that the spread is out of control.
"We're in probably in the darkest days that we have been because of the load of covid, because of the spread of covid and because we're all getting tired of what we know works as the governor mentioned, but we've got to recommit and redouble our efforts to make sure we're breaking the exponential spread of this virus," Thompson said during the video- conference.
ACTIVE CASES AT RECORD
The cases added Thursday included 1,285 that were confirmed through PCR tests.
The other 524 were "probable" cases, which included those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state's cumulative case count rose to 128,006.
That comprised 115,228 confirmed cases and 12,778 probable ones.
At record levels since Nov. 5, the number of confirmed or probable cases that were considered active rose by 800, to 14,491, as almost 1,000 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
The state's death toll rose by 17, to 1,964, among confirmed cases and by one, to 180, among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted-living facility residents, the count of virus deaths rose by five, to 866.
The Health Department's count of confirmed and probable cases rose by 203 in Pulaski County; 178 in Washington County; 139 in Benton County; 96 in Sebastian County; 74 in Saline County; 71 in Faulkner County; 68 in Craighead County; 57 in White County; and 50 in Jefferson County.
Among prison and jail inmates, the count of cases rose by 54.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Also on Thursday, the Center for Health Improvement's health policy board issued recommendations aimed at preventing the spread of the virus during Thanksgiving gatherings.
The board "strongly encourages families to forgo large family gatherings and to celebrate with household members, joining extended family by telephone, video, or other electronic means," the center said on its website, achi.net.
For those who decide to have gatherings with people from multiple households, the board recommended communicating by Saturday "to discuss risk reduction and management strategies, commit to safeguard each other, and establish a plan."
"If agreement is not reached, consider not participating," the center said.
Also starting Saturday, people who will attend such gatherings should "modify their external exposures by eliminating unnecessary shopping, minimizing participation in gatherings and other social activities, and ceasing visits to bars, restaurants, and other places of exposure to the public."
Before traveling and by Nov. 23, the attendees should also seek a PCR test "to minimize the likelihood of unknowingly transmitting the virus while being asymptomatic."
"If you test positive, do not travel or attend," the center said.
The board also recommended limiting the size of the gathering to 10 or fewer people if possible and holding the gathering outdoors if the weather permits.
"If gathering indoors, open windows (use a heater if necessary) and turn on vent hoods to increase ventilation," the center said.
The board also recommended limiting the length of the event. Rather than having people share serving utensils, one person should be designated to serve others while wearing a mask and gloves.
Others also should wear a mask when not eating or drinking.
The board also recommended taking extra precautions for people at high risk of complications from covid-19, including pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease.
"Individuals in nursing homes are at particular risk and should not be brought home for celebrations," the center said.
Thompson said the recommendations were meant to supplement a guidance for holiday gatherings issued by the Health Department earlier this week.
George Yarbrough, a Conway School District substitute teacher known to students as "Mr. Ron," died of the virus on Tuesday at age 74, according to his obituary.
He is among at least seven public school employees to die of the virus since schools reopened this fall.
Yarbrough worked as a substitute in Conway for nearly two decades.
In 2019, he received the Arkansas Substitute Teacher of the Year award from Kelly Education, the company through which Conway Public Schools contracts substitutes.
Vanessa Gwin, Yarbrough's niece, said he tested positive Oct. 24.
Within a week, doctors placed Yarbrough on a ventilator at Conway Regional Medical Center, she said.
"For the most part, it was downhill," Gwin said. "It has all been really sad."
Gwin said that via contact tracing it is believed her uncle contracted the virus from friends, not from working at school.
"He was amazing," she said. "He was everyone's biggest cheerleader. He never wished a bad thing on any person."
Meanwhile, Janis Millican, a Lafayette County Elementary School teacher who contracted the virus in late September, remains in the critical care unit at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Kayla Smitherman, her daughter, said.
Smitherman said that "doctors are optimistic" her mother, who is 59, will wake up after she went into cardiac arrest last week.
Doctors have been running tests to determine brain activity; Millican is "still not following commands" and remains on a ventilator, her daughter, who created a GoFundMe page to raise money for medical expenses, said.
"The tubes in her throat could also cause long-lasting damage," Smitherman said. "She still can't breathe on her own."
According to biweekly Health Department reports, 106 school districts had five or more active cases as of Thursday, up from 84 on Monday.
The cumulative number of positive cases, including districts with fewer than five, is 1,864, another sharp increase from data released on Monday that numbered school cases at 1,418.
On Nov. 2, the Health Department tallied public school cases at 1,024.
School systems with the most positives include Springdale with 116, Rogers with 76 and Fort Smith with 68.
More districts are also announcing shifts to remote learning because of covid-19 cases and quarantines.
The Pulaski County Special School District announced Thursday that William Jefferson Clinton Elementary and Sylvan Hills Elementary schools, both in Sherwood, are pivoting to virtual-only learning through Thanksgiving break with students returning Nov. 30.
Both schools have "quarantined an increasing number of students and staff in a short period of time who have been identified as probable close contacts," the district said in a news release. "Although the number of actual positive cases from covid-19 are low, we want to ensure that all students and staff remain healthy and safe."
Bradley Elementary and Bradley High School, part of the Emerson Taylor Bradley School District, shifted all students to virtual learning on Thursday through the Thanksgiving holiday.
"Due to the recent increase of student covid-19 cases, and the overwhelming number of students mandated to quarantine, we feel this to be the best and safest option for all stakeholders," the district said in an announcement.
Face-to-face instruction will resume on Nov. 30.
After two students tested positive, Horatio Elementary of the Horatio School District pivoted to remote classes on Wednesday until Dec. 1, the district said on Facebook. The decision stemmed from a shortage of substitutes and the number of faculty quarantined, the announcement said.
Atkins High School also closed on-site learning on Wednesday with classes resuming on Nov. 30, the Atkins School District announced on Facebook.
"Although only three students have actually tested positive, we feel that this is necessary due to a number of students who have been in close contact with those students and are quarantined," the Facebook post said.
Cedarville High School shifted to virtual-only instruction Thursday through Tuesday, the Cedarville School District said on its website. Eight out of the high school's 23 faculty members are quarantined, the district said.
The Watson Chapel School District's Coleman Intermediate closed for in-person classes today until Nov. 30 because of student and teacher quarantines, the district said on its website.
Ida Burns Elementary of Conway Public Schools is also pivoting to virtual instruction today through Nov. 20, according to a post on the elementary school's Facebook page.
The post said Ida Burns has "seen an increase in the number of covid cases and students and staff who have had to be quarantined as a result of exposure."
The Little Rock School District announced that Henderson Middle School, which shifted to remote instruction last week, will continue remote learning through Tuesday with students returning to in-class instruction on Wednesday.
In its daily covid-19 report, the district reported that four students across the district and three employees had tested positive during the 24-hour period ending at 3 p.m. Thursday.
An additional 39 students and six employees were required to quarantine after coming into contact with someone who tested positive.
At colleges and universities, the number of active cases increased from 530 on Monday to 641 on Thursday, according to Health Department reports.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, had the most, 108, followed by University of Central Arkansas in Conway with 64 and Harding University in Searcy with 52.
UA logged 103 active cases as of Wednesday, according to data on its website.
Health Department data and university data can vary slightly because of different reporting methods.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, was listed as having 26 active cases, up from 17 on Monday.
UALR has added a rapid testing service on campus as well as 480 test kits, Cody Decker, the university's vice chancellor for student affairs and chief data officer, said in an email.
"The addition of on-site testing is enabling convenient and rapid testing for symptomatic students and employees," Decker said. "The primary focus now has been educating and ensuring compliance with the university guide."
Arkansas State University in Jonesboro also continues to have increasing cases. ASU reported 124 active cases on Thursday, up from 111 the day before and 54 a week earlier.
Harding University reported 72 active cases yesterday, an increase from 56 on Wednesday and 48 Tuesday.