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Arkansas cases rise by 1,162, a high so far for week

Palestine-Wheatley teacher dies; pandemic toll up by 6 by Andy Davis, Lara Farrar | October 31, 2020 at 9:03 a.m.
A nurse conducts a coronavirus test in August 2020 at the UAMS drive-thru screening site in Little Rock. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Friday by 1,162 -- the biggest increase so far this week but lower than the record spike the previous Friday.

Meanwhile, a school administrator said a teacher in eastern Arkansas died of the virus Thursday, becoming at least the sixth public school employee to die of the virus since students returned to classes in August.

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, rose Friday by six, to 1,900.

"Although our total of new cases today is lower than last Friday, we cannot grow weary in our preventative measures against this virus," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement.

"As we go into the weekend, let's all be mindful of the guidance from the Arkansas Department of Health on how to have a safe Halloween."

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Jimmy Hynum, a 53-year-old music teacher at Palestine-Wheatley Elementary School, died Thursday afternoon after learning he had contracted the virus around Oct. 10, Jon Estes, Palestine-Wheatley School District Superintendent Jon Estes said.

"He was well-liked, well-loved and well-respected by everyone," Estes said. "He will be crazily, crazily missed. It will be a hard hit on everyone."

Hynum had worked for the district for about a decade, Estes said.

He said news of the death is especially difficult as the school district prepared for football homecoming celebrations Friday night.

"It is just tough," Estes said. "It is tragic. It will be hard to celebrate homecoming and to have a good homecoming without thinking about it."

On her Facebook page, Hynum's wife, Angela Hynum, wrote Thursday afternoon that her husband was "hanging on by a thread."

Angela Hynum said her husband's nurse told her that he did not think he would "make it through the night."

"It is such a letdown because I was thinking that we were going a tiny bit into the right direction," Angela Hynum wrote. "I appreciate all of your prayers, love and positive thoughts more than you know. I am just at a loss for words."

About 8:30 a.m. Friday, she posted on her Facebook page that her husband had passed away late Thursday afternoon.

"I am heartbroken, but I know I will be ok because I know God's plan is more vast than the heart-breaking moments we glimpse now," she wrote.

Jimmy Hynum had been in intensive care at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock where he had been on a ventilator for at least two weeks, Cinthia Graham, a family friend and Palestine-Wheatley high school band director, said.

During homecoming celebrations Friday night, she said, a chair would be placed on the football field where students would place roses in memory of the teacher.

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A tuba -- Jimmy Hynum's favorite instrument -- would be placed next to the chair.

"I know the kids loved him," Graham said. "They cherished their time with him, and they enjoyed his class."


More than 2,300 public-school employees had tested positive for the virus as of Thursday, according to a Health Department report.

As of Oct. 22, 60 school employees had been hospitalized, including 14 who were placed in intensive care and seven who were put on ventilators, Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said.

Other public-school employees who have died of covid-19 this school year include Atkins Superintendent Jody Jenkins, Watson Chapel first-grade teacher Angela Francis, Harrisburg elementary school teacher Susanne Michael, Cabot elementary school paraprofessional Melissa Hilton and Russellville bus driver Terry Thacker.

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said in a Facebook post that the death this month of Nettleton School District Athletic Director Greg Rainwater, 51, was also from "complications related to a diagnosis of covid-19."

Karen Curtner, Nettleton School District superintendent, said Friday that it was unclear whether Rainwater's death was related to the virus or other health conditions.


Virus cases among employees prompted Omaha High School and Junior High School, in northern Arkansas near the Missouri border, to shift to online instruction Friday, Omaha School District Superintendent Ryan Huff said.

"These are staff members who have a lot of contact with a lot of students," Huff said. "It created a situation where a lot of students needed to be quarantined and so many staff members who needed to be quarantined we could not get enough substitutes."

Huff said about 40% of the student body in the two schools had been identified as probable close contacts.

"We had one case of covid earlier in the year," he said. "We did not have near this many quarantined. This is a unique situation."

The shift was scheduled to extend through Nov. 11.

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In Little Rock, kindergartners at Pulaski Heights Elementary will shift to virtual classes through Nov. 10 after a faculty member tested positive, resulting in the quarantine of two additional staff members and 12 kindergarten students, according to a letter sent to parents Friday evening.

In its daily covid-19 report, the Little Rock School District said two students at Terry Elementary School had tested positive and 21 other students and two employees were in quarantine.

One student enrolled at virtual instruction at Pinnacle View Middle School also tested positive during the 24-hour period ending at 3 p.m. Friday, the district said.

Fifteen students and four employees at other schools also were required to quarantine, the district said.

In-person classes at Southwest High School, which shifted to virtual instruction Tuesday, will resume Monday, the district said.

Meanwhile, classes at Pulaski Heights Middle School, Little Rock West High School of Innovation and Cloverdale Middle School, which shifted to online-only this week, will stay virtual through the end of next week.


At a virtual news conference on Friday, Jonesboro-based St. Bernards Healthcare Chief Executive Officer Chris Barber said the number of people hospitalized in the state's northeast had more than doubled, from 76 to 159, from Sept. 29 to Thursday.

"Today we are capable of handling the workload and the volume that we have in our northeast Arkansas hospitals, but I wanted to be very candid with the group this morning: We cannot continue the trend that we're seeing right now," Barber said.

"We cannot have consecutive months going into this wintertime period with 112% increase in covid hospitalizations.

"At some point in time you can only flex so much. You can only stretch so much. So we are putting everyone on notice: We don't have a major issue today, but if we continue this trend, we will have real problems in our community in the near future."

He encouraged residents not to go out in public unless they need to and to wear a mask when they do.

"We all know folks are fatigued and tired," Barber said. "We need to get back to the basics," including hand washing and practicing social distancing.

Sam Lynd, chief executive of NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, and Shane Speights, dean of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, had similar messages.

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"We're really calling on folks to adhere to the guidelines," Lynd said. "We know they work."

Craighead County Judge Marvin Day said he decided to organize the news conference after the county was singled out in a weekly report from the White House coronavirus task force.

"I think the message is that our health care system is at a critical point and that we can make some changes to our everyday behavior, by wearing your mask and keeping your hands clean, that can make a difference if we can pull together," he said.

He said he didn't know why the virus has been spreading in the county. He noted that when he went to vote early last week, the 75 to 100 people who were standing in line were spaced out, and all but one was wearing a mask.

"He was standing there with his wife, and she was wearing a mask," he said.

"I think there's a lot of folks that are trying and working hard at it," he added. "I just think it's really hard for people to grasp that this virus is pretty contagious."


School districts around Jonesboro have had higher case numbers over the past week, according to Health Department data.

The Greene County Tech School District as well as the Nettleton, Jonesboro and Paragould districts, all in the northeastern part of the state, were near the top of public schools in terms of active cases, according to data released from the Health Department on Thursday.

"Our cases have gone up just a little bit," Curtner, the Nettleton superintendent, said. "But nothing that is so significant that we are having to close down any of our schools."

The Nettleton School District closed one of its elementary schools for about a week because of a lack of substitute teachers, Curtner said.

"Some of our cases are from people who are not even within the schools. You just have a lot of people who are coming and going. We don't have any control over that," Curtner said. "Everyday is a different day."

Pharis Smith, principal of Tuckerman Elementary School in the Jackson County School District, about 45 minutes from Jonesboro, said that so far, the school system has not felt the impact of surrounding communities.

"We're doing pretty good actually," Smith said. "We have been very fortunate with only limited cases and exposure. Elementary has been great, but middle and high school has had a few more [cases] but nothing like hitting more northeast."

Arkansas State University in Jonesboro issued a statement urging fans who plan to attend today's home football game against Troy University to review ASU's health protocols, including a requirement for fans to wear masks when they are entering, exiting, or moving around Centennial Bank Stadium.

Active cases at ASU have increased from 37 Monday to 48 Friday, according to the university's website.

"Obviously we are watching the region's covid data," Bill Smith, an ASU spokesperson, said in an email. "With the growth in our region, we are not surprised by the slight uptick in cases among the A-State community."

On its website, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, reported 11 new cases since its last update on Wednesday.

The number of cases that were active rose by four, to 48.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock reported 10 active cases on campus as of Friday morning.


The Health Department's count of confirmed or probable cases rose Friday by 101 each in Benton and Washington counties; 91 in Pulaski County; 53 in Craighead County; and by 52 each in Miller and Sebastian counties.

Among prison and jail inmates, the count of cases rose by 28.

Lindsay Wallace, chief of staff at the state Department of Corrections and director of the Arkansas Sentencing Commission, said the number of cases among inmates grew by 19, to 232, at the McPherson Unit in Newport; by 11, to 40, at the Texarkana Regional Correction Center; and by eight, to 116, at the Omega Supervision Sanction Center in Malvern.

The number of cases that were active at those prisons ranged from 117 at the McPherson Unit to 26 at the Texarkana lockup.


Friday was the third day this week when the state's daily increase in cases was lower than the same day a week earlier.

A week earlier, for instance, the case tallies rose by a record 1,337.

State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said the lower increase was "a little bit heartening, but we'll have to see how the next week goes, especially since we have a holiday this weekend that may contribute to spread."

Gatherings over Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day have blamed for spikes in the transmission of the virus that rippled for weeks afterward.

In guidance posted Oct. 6 on its website, the Health Department lists examples of low- and moderate-risk Halloween activities as well as high-risk activities, such as hayrides with people from different households, haunted houses "where people may be crowded together and screaming," or traditional trick-or-treating.

Dillaha said one hayride has already been linked to a cluster of cases.

"I would encourage people to celebrate Halloween at home and to avoid mixing of people from different households," Dillaha said.

"If people want to do trick-or-treating, then they should do it in a way that they can maintain a six-foot distance between the children receiving the candy and the person who's giving the candy."

For instance, the Health Department's list of "moderate risk" activities includes "one-way trick-or-treating where individually wrapped goodie bags are lined up for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance (such as at the end of a driveway or at the edge of a yard)."

People who prepare the treat bags should wash their hands for 20 seconds beforehand and afterward, the guidelines add.

"There are activities that people typically participate in this time of year, and people need to rethink those things because of the potential for spread, especially when they don't maintain social distancing and wearing face masks," Dillaha said.


The cases added to the state's tallies included 817 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests and 345 probable cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.

The number of covid-19 patients hospitalized in the state rose for the second-straight day, to 668.

That was up two from a day earlier but remained below the peak of 676 patients who were hospitalized as of Tuesday.

The patients on Friday included 101 who were on ventilators, up from 100 a day earlier.

The number of patients who had ever been hospitalized with covid-19 rose by 36, to 7,003.

The number who had ever been on a ventilator rose by five, to 834.

The state's cumulative case count rose to 110,874.

That comprised 102,405 confirmed cases and 8,469 probable ones.

The number of cases that were considered active rose by 330 to reach a record, 9,796.

That reflected the increase in cases on Friday, minus 825 Arkansans who were newly classified as having recovered, the six deaths and one person with an active infection whose death was unrelated to covid-19.

The state's death toll rose by five, to 1,737, among confirmed cases and by one, to 163, among probable cases.

The 5,556 cases that had been added to the state's tallies this week was 157 fewer than had been added at the same point last week.

Over a rolling seven-day period, the average number of cases added to the state's tallies each day fell Friday by 25, to 963.

Coronavirus daily updates and cumulative covid-19 cases in Arkansas

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