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story.lead_photo.caption Baptist Health Chief Executive Officer Troy Wells discusses Baptist’s partnership with the state to increase capacity for coronavirus tests by housing another machine at its facilities. More photos at arkansasonline.com/910governor/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

With the number of coronavirus cases growing among students at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, top administrators have discussed a temporary "pivot" to online-only instruction but "don't feel there's a need to pivot to that extent yet," interim Provost Charles Robinson said Wednesday.

Robinson, speaking at a meeting of UA's faculty senate, said he and Chancellor Joe Steinmetz talked Tuesday about possibilities that "might include reducing our face-to-face offerings at least for a temporary period of time."

"If indeed there is a need to pivot, we will pivot," Robinson said.

Statewide, the growth of coronavirus cases ticked up a bit on Wednesday as Arkansas added 385 confirmed cases to its official tally.

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, increased by 11, to 928, while the number of patients hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by two, to 411.

The number of those patients who were on ventilators fell by two, to 82.

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In addition to the confirmed cases, which represent positive results from polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, the state reported 113 new probable cases of the virus, which include those diagnosed solely with less-sensitive antigen tests.

The state's count of confirmed cases grew to 66,406, while its count of probable cases rose to 849.

State officials cited the return of college students to campuses as a reason virus cases surged last week, including a record increase of 1,094 confirmed cases Friday.

The growth in cases slowed over the holiday weekend, with the state adding 294 confirmed cases Tuesday.

UA reported having 888 cases as of Wednesday that were active, meaning the person had tested positive and had not yet recovered.

That was down from 923 active cases as of Monday. The latest total comprises 876 students, seven staff members, three faculty members and two graduate assistants.

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The number had increased rapidly last week, in part because of a three-day drive-thru testing event held on campus with the Health Department.

According to the university's website, 1,205 cases have been reported among people who have been on campus at some point since Aug. 1, including 90 identified Monday and Tuesday.

The university began fall classes Aug. 24 with about 59% of classes structured as online-only courses. Other classes, with a few exceptions for technical courses, are being recorded so students can participate remotely.

Robinson said that while there's not a need now to make a "pivot" to online-only, "we are ever aware and will continue to look at the data."

He said he's teaching an in-person course "because I feel it is safe."

Earlier Wednesday, Steinmetz sent a written message to the campus that said, in part, that "the extremely low rate of infection among faculty, staff and graduate assistants suggests our classes remain safe."

Gallery: Daily COVID-19 Briefing 9-9-20

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"Our testing data show that it is likely off-campus gatherings causing the majority of the positive cases," Steinmetz added.

Robinson told the faculty that students "who actually have tested and have been found positive are either at home or living in their own apartments or in isolation and quarantine spaces that we set aside for students who are living in University Housing and want to continue to stay around the campus."

Robinson added: "We have right now over 300 students in such quarantine and isolation spaces, and we're prepared to take on more and constantly looking at our inventory of spaces to adjust accordingly."

Despite the number given by Robinson, out of 270 on-campus spaces set aside for isolation and quarantine, "about half of those spaces are still available," UA spokesman Mark Rushing said in an email Wednesday.

"Remember, some students have decided to go home to quarantine or isolate, while others can quarantine in place without moving to a room specifically designated for that purpose," Rushing said.

But he said the number of quarantine and isolation spaces on campus will soon grow.

The university has identified "about 100 additional spaces for any potential quarantine or isolation needs," including 10 recently made available, he said.

Soon, he said, the campus will have more than 350 spaces available for potential isolation and quarantine needs.

"It's important for the university to not only provide a place where our students living on campus can quarantine or isolate as needed, but to also set them up so that they don't have to leave their rooms for class, meals, laundry or even to take out the trash. We're providing all of those services for these students," Rushing said.

On Tuesday, Rushing said five students had recently been housed in off-campus lodging arranged by the university at the Mount Sequoyah retreat in Fayetteville.

Christopher Spencer, a spokesman for UA's housing department, said Wednesday that 4,642 students are in UA residence halls and another 308 in UA-managed fraternity housing, according to preliminary totals.

The faculty senate, which met remotely, approved a nonbinding resolution requesting that the university "conduct an audit of HVAC systems on campus detailing progress in efforts to mitigate COVID-19 infections by airborne transmission" and to make the audits publicly available.

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The resolution cited recent articles in scholarly journals in which scientists have expressed concern about the airborne transmission of covid-19 via what are sometimes called microdroplets or aerosols.

Mike Johnson, UA's associate vice chancellor for facilities, told faculty members that the university has been working to improve air-quality systems in campus buildings.

He said the work is complicated but that he would make an effort to present information to the faculty in a way that could be more easily understood.

Although most of Arkansas' colleges and universities have reopened their campuses to students, Hendrix College, a private university in Conway, announced July 29 that it would begin its fall semester remotely.

Lyon College, a private college in Batesville, announced July 24 that students would not be returning to campus this fall, with courses all taught remotely. Both schools cited safety concerns.

INSTRUCTION SHIFT

Among elementary and secondary schools, Pea Ridge Middle School on Wednesday became one of the latest to temporarily shift to all-virtual instruction.

Keith Martin, superintendent of the Pea Ridge School District, notified parents and the Pea Ridge community that there was a covid-19 case reported at the school.

That prompted the school to pivot to virtual instruction for all students Wednesday, to allow time for cleaning and for contact tracing among the fifth and sixth grades.

A total of 39 middle school students were identified as probable close contacts to the person who has covid-19. They will continue with remote learning for the next several days, returning to face-to-face instruction on Sept. 21.

All other students and employees will return to on-site instruction today, Martin said in his letter on the district's website.

In the 24-hour period ending at 3 p.m. Wednesday, the Little Rock School District reported one new covid-19 case -- a student at Horace Mann Middle School.

The district also reported that five employees and 14 students at multiple campuses were quarantined in the same 24-hour period for symptoms or for close contact with someone with covid-19.

Those campuses were Chicot, Martin Luther King Jr., Terry, Wakefield, and Fulbright elementaries, as well Mann, Pulaski Heights and Pinnacle View middle schools, and Central and Southwest high schools.

PARTNERSHIP ANNOUNCED

Meanwhile, at his near-daily news conference on the pandemic, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced a partnership with the Baptist Health system that he said would increase the state's capacity to test for the virus.

The state will provide the hospital system with a machine from Thermo Fisher Scientific of Waltham, Mass., capable of performing 1,000 tests a day.

Health Secretary Jose Romero said Baptist agreed to perform up to half of those tests for the department.

The bulk of the department's tests are performed with three machines from PerkinElmer, also based in Waltham, that are each capable of performing about 900 tests a day, he said.

He said Hutchinson and the previous health secretary, Nate Smith, intended for the Thermo Fisher machine to be a backup in case of a shortage of the supplies for the PerkinElmer machines.

"Our ability to partner with Baptist allows us to have the machine up and running at all times, so there's not a lag time in getting everything up and running, and it's, if you will, a pop-off valve for when we have extra specimens," Romero said.

He said extra capacity could be needed as the department helps nursing homes comply with a new federal requirement to test staffers as often as twice a week.

"We have in the past had to contract with other commercial laboratories to handle the large number of specimens that were coming through our laboratory, so now more of these will be able to stay in state. We'll be able to address these very quickly."

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The state bought the machine using $82,400 in federal coronavirus relief funds, Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said.

Hutchinson said it will help the state achieve his goal of being less reliant on out-of-state commercial labs, which have sometimes taken several days to return results as they struggled to keep up with the nationwide demand for testing.

"The Department of Health did not have the space for another machine, and so we had purchased this machine hoping to have a partner for it," Hutchinson said.

Baptist Health Chief Executive Officer Troy Wells said the machine, which he expects to be delivered by Oct. 1, will also help the hospital system get quicker results for its patients.

"Today and over the last several months, we have sent anywhere from 400-1,000 tests out of state to a reference lab, and that turnaround time, as we've talked about here many times before, has been rather slow at times," Wells said. "So it does benefit Baptist Health, but first and foremost it will benefit the state of Arkansas."

BUFFETS OK'D

Also on Wednesday, the Health Department issued modified rules allowing restaurants to offer salad bars, buffets, condiment bars and other self-serve options.

Customers using those options will be required to wear masks and gloves provided by the restaurant at the entrance to the area.

The restaurants must also provide hand sanitizer and post a sign saying the use of hand sanitizer is required and that customers must use a new plate and set of gloves for each trip.

Serving utensils must be replaced every hour or every time food is replaced in the self-serve area.

The restaurant should also assign an employee to make sure customers maintain a spacing of 6 feet, according to the new rules.

Self-service options had been prohibited under the rules allowing restaurants to reopen to dine-in service in May.

"We opted to allow self-service at restaurants with the restrictions detailed in the directive because we felt it was reasonably safe to do so," Lesnick said in an email.

SYNDROME REPORTED

Lesnick also said Wednesday that Arkansas has had five cases of a rare condition that affects some children two to four weeks after becoming infected with the coronavirus.

None of the patients died of the condition, he said.

The first case of the condition, known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome, was diagnosed in Arkansas was in June, Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a child with the condition may have inflammation in the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs.

Children with the condition "may have a fever and various symptoms, including abdominal (gut) pain, [throwing up], diarrhea, neck pain, rash, bloodshot eyes, or feeling extra tired," according to the agency's website.

As of Sept. 3, the agency said it had received reports of 792 cases of the condition nationwide and 16 deaths associated with it.

Most were in children age 1-14. More than 70% were Hispanic or non-Hispanic and Black.

NURSING HOME TESTS

Under federal rules announced last month, nursing homes in counties where more than 10% of the PCR tests for the coronavirus were positive the previous week are required to test their employees twice every week.

In Arkansas, 30 counties fell into that category for the week ending Sept. 2, according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In 35 other counties, where 5%-10% of the tests were positive, nursing homes are required to test employees at least once a week.

Nursing homes in the remaining 10 counties, where less than 5% of the tests were positive, must test employees at least once a month.

The tests should be conducted using rapid test machines on site or by laboratories capable of returning results within 48 hours, according to a guidance memo from the federal agency.

Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said some nursing homes started conducting the tests last week, and others started this week.

The Health Department has agreed to process the tests for nursing homes in several counties in Central Arkansas, she said.

"The logistics of this are expansive, and we have a lot of work to do," she said.

About 100 nursing homes have received rapid testing machines from the federal government, with varying amounts of supplies needed to perform the tests.

All 227 of the state's licensed homes are expected to receive the machines by the end of the month, she said.

"In some cases, those are being used for [routine] testing, but overall facilities are trying to prioritize their use for symptomatic residents or staff," Bunch said.

She said she is hoping that the expanded testing will allow the state to loosen restrictions on visits to homes, including a prohibition on visits to homes where a resident or staff member has tested positive in the previous 28 days.

"We get so many calls from spouses, from children from grandchildren, siblings, that just really want to see their loved ones in the nursing homes, and their loved ones in the nursing homes really want to see them," Bunch said.

"We feel for them and get that and understand it and want to do whatever we can within the restrictions of the federal rules to allow that."

WHITE HOUSE REPORT

According to the latest report from the White House coronavirus task force, dated Sunday, Arkansas last week had the sixth-highest number of new cases per 100,000 residents when compared to other states and the 13th-highest percentage of tests that were positive.

The state's 4,596 new cases during the week that ended Friday translated to a rate of 152 cases per 100,000 residents.

That was up from the 130 cases per 100,000 residents reported the previous week.

The 9.6% of Arkansas' PCR tests that were positive during the week that ended Sept. 2 was down slightly from 9.8% the previous week.

The report continued to classify Arkansas as being in the "red zone" for cases, meaning it had more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents last week, and in the "yellow zone" for the percentage of tests that were positive.

The report also listed 25 counties as being in the red zone, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents the previous week and that more than 10% of their tests were positive.

That was down from 27 counties listed as being in the red zone in the previous week's report.

The report continued to recommend that the state take steps such as closing bars and more severely restricting restaurant seating.

The report also added recommendations relating to colleges and elementary and secondary schools, saying the state should require "universities and colleges to have a plan for both rapid testing and contact tracing of symptomatic students and periodic surveillance testing of students."

Arkansas should also use rapid tests to monitor the spread of the virus among kindergarten through 12th grade teachers, long-term care facility staffs, and first responders, the report says.

Romero said the Health Department isn't requiring surveillance testing in schools or universities "at this moment, but this is certainly a consideration."

The department has conducted mass testing events at colleges and recommends testing for people with symptoms or who think they may have been exposed to someone with the virus.

CASES BY COUNTY

The confirmed cases that were added to the state's count on Wednesday included 42 in Washington County, 32 in Craighead County, 31 in Pulaski County, 24 in Benton County and 23 in Jefferson County.

Romero said seven of the virus deaths added to the Health Department's count were at two nursing homes.

Lesnick identified the homes as Timberlane Health and Rehabilitation in El Dorado and Beebe Retirement Center.

He didn't have a breakdown of the number of deaths in each nursing home.

Of the 11 deaths added to the state's total, three occurred in the first week of August, six happened later that month and two were early this month, he said.

Statewide, the number of confirmed cases in the state that were considered active fell by 286, to 5,558, as 660 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.

The number of Arkansans who have ever been hospitalized with the virus rose by 50, to 4,574, while the number who have ever been on ventilators rose by seven, to 586.

Coronavirus daily updates and cumulative covid-19 cases in Arkansas
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