The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville announced a suspension of nonacademic, on-campus events and restricted off-campus gatherings on Friday as the state's count of confirmed coronavirus cases rose by a record 1,094.
The increase was just the fourth time the state's count of confirmed virus cases had risen by more than 1,000 in one day, and came after an increase of 969 confirmed infections a day earlier.
State officials have linked the recent uptick to the return of students to college campuses, with off-campus gatherings cited as a likely driver of the infections.
"This is a fairly dramatic exclamation point to end this week and to start the holiday weekend," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said. "It should serve as a reminder to us, and the challenge we continue to be in, but it also reflects some extraordinary testing numbers."
Laboratories reported performing a record 11,254 polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests of Arkansans on Thursday.
Those tests, which are required for a case to be considered confirmed, included 8,391 by commercial laboratories, 2,481 by the Department of Health's laboratory in Little Rock and 382 by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
The state also reported an additional 80 "probable" cases, which include those confirmed solely through less-sensitive antigen tests, bringing its count of probable cases to 503.
The state's cumulative count of confirmed cases rose to 64,175.
In response to a spike in cases among UA students, the university will suspend on-campus events from today through Sept. 18, interim Provost Charles Robinson said in a letter to the campus.
He said the ban does not apply to events conducted by the university's academic and administrative units. Those are "subject to approval on a case by case basis."
The suspension also doesn't affect classes or other instructional activities or intercollegiate athletics.
He said UA will treat parties and other gatherings of 10 or more students "without very clearly maintained safety elements such as social distancing and mask-wearing" as a violation of the university's "Code of Student Life."
"Organizing and conducting such an event will be considered a serious matter and students will be held accountable," Robinson, the university's vice chancellor for student and academic affairs, said in the letter.
Students congregating in large groups on Fayetteville's Dickson Street or elsewhere while failing to wear masks and practice social distancing will be considered in violation of the code, he said.
"The current number of COVID cases in the University community is too high," Robinson said in the letter.
"We need to work hard on reducing the number to maintain a campus environment that is as safe as possible and have a successful semester."
The statewide death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Health Department, rose by 12, to 873.
Health Secretary Jose Romero said two of the deaths happened in July but weren't immediately reported.
The number of Arkansans hospitalized with the virus, already well below the peak of 526 as of Aug. 4, fell by 24, to 401.
That came despite 36 patients who were newly hospitalized, which brought the cumulative number of Arkansans who have ever been hospitalized with the virus to 4,422.
The number of patients on ventilators fell by five, to 86, while the number of patients who had ever been on a ventilator rose by two, to 564.
The number of cases considered active rose by 424, to 5,755, as 658 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
It was the second day the active-case total had increased after mostly falling since it peaked at 7,387 on Aug. 9.
'A GOOD PLAN'
The cases added to the state total on Friday included 215 in Washington County; 87 in Pulaski County; 56 in Benton County; 47 in Craighead County; 24 in Jefferson County; and 21 in Sebastian County.
Hutchinson said 82% of the new cases in Washington County and 43% of those in Craighead County, home to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, were among people age 18-24.
"In other words, the college-age" residents, Hutchinson said.
At his near-daily news conference on the pandemic, held Friday at Unity Health-White County Medical Center in Searcy, the Republican governor also displayed a chart showing the growth of new cases seeming to fall or level off in each of the five public-health regions except for a spike in the northwest region, which includes Washington County and 18 other counties.
"I had a good conversation with [UA] Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz earlier today, and he understands what he's facing on the campus, and they're taking some very quick action to address that," Hutchinson said.
He added that Steinmetz "has other actions that he can take that's in his pocket."
"I think they have a good plan," Hutchinson said. "Obviously it's not a surprise, when you look across the country, that there are cases on a college campus. The larger the campus, the more possibility and likelihood of that happening."
Asked what additional measures could be implemented, Mark Rushing, UA's associate vice chancellor for university relations, said in an email the university will "continue to look closely at data to monitor and assess our campus and community conditions including the safety of our classrooms and campus for our students, faculty and staff."
Hutchinson said he also had spoken with Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan and praised the city's move, announced a day earlier, to assign additional police officers and fire marshal's office personnel to encourage college students and other patrons of bars and restaurants on Dickson Street and the downtown square to wear masks and practice social distancing.
The Health Department tested about 1,500 people on the UA campus at a three-day drive-thru clinic geared toward students that ended Thursday, Naveen Patil, the department's medical director for infectious disease, said during an online campus forum Friday.
Out of the 800 tests that had been processed, he said 200, or 25%, were positive.
On its online dashboard, UA reported a cumulative total of 675 cases since Aug. 10 among people who had been on the campus at some point, up from 427 on Wednesday.
The 248 new cases included 137 self-reported positive results and 111 from on-campus testing.
As of Friday, 639 of the cases were active, up from 399 on Wednesday.
The numbers include only partial results from the testing clinic, a university spokesman said.
In his letter to the campus, Robinson said university officials believe "off-campus social gatherings where social distancing is not observed" are "the largest sources of transmission among students."
"Students must hold each other accountable for safe behavior and lead the way in modifying conduct to prevent COVID Spread," Robinson said in the letter.
He said officials will evaluate whether the ban on on-campus events should be extended beyond Sept. 18.
In the online forum, Melissa Harwood-Rom, UA's dean of students, encouraged students to report behavior not in line with public-health guidelines.
"I think we can all agree that to some extent our students have not adhered to our educational and behavioral expectations," Harwood-Rom said,
She said there have been about 400 reports of "failure to wear a mask" resulting in warning letters issued to students.
"None of those reports have been repeated," she said, with students getting the message about the campus expectation to wear a mask.
Harwood-Rom said "of more concern" are "large gatherings that we have gotten reports about."
The university's office of student standards and conduct "immediately begins an investigation" when students are identified as taking part, she said.
Rushing, when asked how many cases have been documented of noncompliant off-campus behavior, said in an email that "it wouldn't be appropriate to discuss any ongoing investigation."
While it doesn't affect the Razorbacks, the suspension of on-campus events caused club sports to be canceled.
Caleigh Christensen, a 21-year-old senior math major from Georgia, is vice president of the women's lacrosse club. She said team gatherings, both on- and off-campus, have been suspended.
"I was not surprised with the announcement today as the cases on campus have increased dramatically and I completely understand," Christensen said in an email.
She said more than 20 students completed a form indicating interest this fall in lacrosse. The club sport is "very meaningful to me," helping build friendships and providing leadership opportunities, she said.
"I am a little nervous about not getting to practice in the fall with my team. I think the cases are going to continue rising and possibly suspend practices even further" beyond the Sept. 18 date given Friday, Christensen said.
'ANXIETY PROVOKING' WEEKEND
Although colleges adopted mask requirements and other rules to prevent the spread of the virus on their campuses, Romero said Thursday that policing off-campus parties and get-togethers is more difficult.
A Health Department directive once prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people, but more recent rules allow events with up to 100 people without previous approval by the department.
Even if the department learned about an off-campus party, "we couldn't shut it down," Romero said Thursday.
He said Friday that Labor Day weekend is "for us in public health a very anxiety-provoking period."
He urged college students and others to take precautions, such as wearing a mask in public and keeping a safe distance from other people.
While younger people are less likely to experience serious complications, the Health Department on Wednesday added the first death of a person age 18-24 to its count of virus deaths.
"Being young and healthy is not a guarantee that you will not develop severe disease or have a fatal outcome," Romero said.
Young people can pass the virus to older people, who are at greater risk of complications.
As of Thursday, 1,079 of the state's active cases were among people age 18-24, making up 20% of the active cases at that time, according to a Health Department report.
A week earlier, the state had just 646 active cases in that age group, accounting for 12% of the 5,341 cases that were active at that time.
Another department report on Thursday listed the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff as having 39 active cases, the second-highest number after the UA campus in Fayetteville, which was listed as having 153.
The Health Department's totals, which come from its investigations of people who test positive, differ from what universities report on their own websites.
"At the moment we are not placing additional restrictions on students but do have a firm mandatory mask policy and do limit large gatherings," George Cotton Sr., UAPB's vice chancellor for institutional advancement, said in an email.
The campus also is encouraging all students and staff members to get tested at an event on Tuesday.
Arkansas State University on Friday reported 137 active covid-19 cases, including 106 off-campus students and 27 students living on the Jonesboro campus.
A day earlier, ASU has listed 112 active cases on its website.
The rising cases so far haven't led to changes as far as on-campus events, ASU spokesman Bill Smith said.
He said students are told about the need to follow covid-19 safety guidelines.
"There have not been any actions or warnings issued to student groups, but student conduct will be used here if necessary," Smith said in an email.
Also on Friday, the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District said it will continue all-virtual classes for middle-school students through the end of next week, with on-site classes resuming Sept. 14.
The school shifted to virtual instruction on Friday after eight teachers went into quarantine after possible exposure to the virus.
Teachers will hold classes through Google Classroom and other online platforms, Superintendent Bryan Duffie said in a letter to the school district.
"This decision was made due to lack of staffing and substitute teachers," he said. "This interruption to onsite learning is not the result of additional covid cases."
Meanwhile, Quest Academy of West Little Rock, a 146-student sixth-through-12th grade charter school on Rahling Road, is sending the 42 students who have been attending school on campus home for instruction over the next several days, Superintendent Steve Gast said Friday.
The school, which has had a confirmed case of the virus on campus, will undergo deep cleaning. The staff will be back within a few days to provide instruction, Gast said. Students, however, will remain off-site for a longer period, probably for at least 14 days
"This is a little bit of a unique case," Gast said. "Most schools that have a reported case would not necessarily immediately go virtual, but because we have such small numbers right now, the best procedure is to be extremely cautious."
The Little Rock School District reported one new case, a staff member at Pinnacle View Middle School, during the 24-hour period that ended at 3 p.m. Friday.
Four staff members and four students were quarantined over contact with an infected person or symptoms of the virus.
Those included one student each at Bale Elementary, Mabelvale Middle, Southwest High and McDermott Elementary, a staff member at Parkview High and three employees at Pinnacle View.
The deaths added to the Health Department's count included the first ones in Baxter and Fulton counties.
The death count rose by one each in Carroll, Cleveland, Garland, Independence, Mississippi, Ouachita, Pulaski, Saline, Sevier and Stone counties.
The death toll rose by two, to 206, among Arkansans age 45-64 and by 10, to 624, among those 65 and older.
Pulaski County continued to have the state's highest death toll, at 113, followed by Washington County, with 78; Benton County, with 58; and Jefferson County, with 51.
The state's count of deaths among nursing-home residents rose by two, to 295.
Although they made up just 14% of the state's cumulative total of confirmed cases, Arkansans age 18-24 accounted for 34% of the cases added to the total on Friday.
The Health Department's count of cases among that age group increased by 369, to 9,266.
The cases increased by 93, to 8,110 among children; by 228, to 22,385, among Arkansas age 25-44; by 222, to 16,713, among those age 45-64; and by 182, to 7,701 among those age 65 and older.
The portion of the Health Department's cumulative case count that was among prison or jail inmates rose by 123.
Such increases can reflect new cases as well as ones that were added to the state's tally earlier but weren't immediately classified as coming from a jail or prison.
Cases among jail and prison inmates also are sometimes not added to the state's total until several days after a test is performed and information from laboratory reports is entered into a state database.
The remaining increase of 971 cases among the state's nonincarcerated population was the state's second-highest one-day increase in such cases. The highest was an increase of 972 such cases on July 23.
The average number of total confirmed cases added to the state's cumulative total each day over a rolling seven-day period increased for the second day in a row, to 656, but remained below the peak average of 780 cases a day as of July 29.