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Virus tally in Arkansas moves past 80,000

Daily rise falls a bit but still tops 800;governor notes dip in hospitalizations by Andy Davis | September 27, 2020 at 7:41 a.m.
This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19. - Photo by NIAID-RML via AP

Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases topped 80,000 on Saturday as 809 were added to the tally.

The death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, rose by 19, to 1,285.

Although Saturday was the fourth-straight day in which the state's count of confirmed and probable cases rose by more than 800, the increase was the lowest since Tuesday, when 617 cases were added.

Saturday was also the second day in a row when the number of new cases added was lower than the day before.

After a spike of 1,086 cases added Thursday, the count rose by 897 on Friday.

In a tweet, Gov. Asa Hutchinson also highlighted a decline in the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in the state.

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The number fell by 30, to 454.

Those patients included 92 who were on ventilators, down from 95 a day earlier.

"Our hospitalizations and cases are down from yesterday, but we must continue working to decrease our numbers," the Republican governor said.

"We can all do our part by wearing a mask & practicing social distancing."

State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said the daily increases in cases continue to indicate "a sustained high level of community spread."

But she pointed to the decline in new cases as a hopeful sign.

It's likely that many of the recent cases are people who became infected during gatherings over Labor Day weekend or who got the virus from those people, she said.

The dip in new cases over the past couple of days could signal that the department's efforts to isolate those who were infected and quarantine those with whom they came into contact have been effective in curbing the virus's spread, she said.

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"That's what my hope is," Dillaha said.

According to the department's online dashboard of coronavirus information, the count of cases confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests rose by 788, to 78,260.

The state's tally of "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests, grew by 21, to 2,495.

The drop in the number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas hospitals came even as 33 people were newly admitted to hospitals.

The number of people who have ever been hospitalized with the virus in the state rose to 5,235. The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by four, to 661.

The state's cumulative count of cases since the start of the pandemic rose to 80,755, comprising 78,260 that were confirmed and 2,495 probable ones.

Despite the different classifications, the Health Department has said it treats confirmed and probable cases the same for the purposes of its contact-tracing efforts.

That includes requiring people whose results are positive from either type of test to isolate themselves and those they may have infected to quarantine.

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The number of confirmed or probable cases that were considered active rose by 165, to 7,414, as 625 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.

After rising for three days, the average number of confirmed or probable cases added to the total each day over a rolling-seven day period fell by 38, to 799.

PRISON OUTBREAKS

The Health Department's count of confirmed and probable cases rose by 76 in Pulaski County; 58 in Craighead County; 51 in Washington County; and 50 in Lincoln County, home to two state prisons where outbreaks have occurred.

At one of those prisons, the Varner Unit, the number of cases among inmates rose on Friday by nine, to 527, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said.

Those cases as of Friday included 101 that were active, up from 94 a day earlier.

At the North Central Unit in Calico Rock, the number of cases among inmates rose on Friday by 13, to 77. All but three of the cases were active on both days.

Murphy said such outbreaks, which typically involve asymptomatic inmates, are often detected when an inmate is given a routine test, such as before being released on parole or transferred to an outside hospital for a medical procedure.

If the test comes back positive, all the inmates who live in the same barracks are tested. The inmates who test negative, after being separated from those who test positive, are then tested again a week later, sometimes turning up more cases, she said.

The Health Department's count of cases among prison and jail inmates rose on Saturday by 139.

Such increases can reflect new cases or ones that were added earlier but not immediately classified as coming from a jail or prison.

Cases among inmates are also sometimes added several days after a test is conducted, after information from laboratory reports is entered into a state database.

LATEST DEATHS

The virus deaths added to the department's count included three in Jefferson County and two each in Benton, Union and White counties.

The death toll rose by one each in Arkansas, Chicot, Dallas, Drew, Phillips, Poinsett, Pope, Pulaski, Sebastian and Washington counties.

Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said 16 of the 19 deaths happened more than two weeks ago, including three that occurred in August.

All 19 of the deaths added to the state's total on Saturday were among confirmed cases.

That, along with the reclassification of two deaths that had been counted as being among probable cases, raised the death toll among confirmed cases to 1,137.

In addition to cases identified through antigen tests, probable cases include those where no test was performed but covid-19 was listed on a death certificate as a contributing or underlying cause of death.

A death initially listed as being among a probable case would reclassified when PCR test comes back positive after the death, Dillaha said.

The change on Saturday lowered the state's count of deaths among probable cases to 148.

The department's count of virus deaths fell by one, to 36, among Arkansans age 35-44, possibly reflecting an earlier death that was initially listed in the wrong age category.

The count of deaths among confirmed and probable cases rose by one, to 83, among Arkansans age 45-54; by one, to 196, among those age 55-64; and by 18, to 946 among those age 65 or older.

Among nursing home residents, the department's count of virus deaths rose by seven, to 415.

In Pulaski County, which had the highest cumulative number of deaths, the toll rose to 148. Washington County had the next highest number of deaths, 115; followed by Benton County, which had 86; and Jefferson County, which had 71.

Pulaski County also continued to lead the state in the number of its cases that were active. It had 750. Jefferson County had the next highest number, 517; followed by Washington County, which had 486; and Craighead County, which had 420.

MASS REQUIREMENT

Despite Arkansas' recent uptick in cases, the obligation for the state's Catholics to attend in-person Sunday Mass will be reinstated this week "for everyone who is in good health and not especially vulnerable or caring for someone who is especially vulnerable," Bishop Anthony Taylor said in a letter Friday to church members.

He said safety measures, such as a requirement to wear masks, had been successful in preventing the virus from spreading during services.

"We are not aware of even a single case of transmission linked to participation in worship in any Catholic church in Arkansas -- or for that matter, not any other Catholic church in the United States where these protocols were in place," Taylor, head of the diocese of Little Rock, wrote.

In response to the pandemic, the requirement to attend in-person Mass was suspended on March 12, "with the stipulation that everyone keep holy the Lord's Day in other ways, for instance through participation in Mass transmitted over the Internet, through eucharistic adoration or other time spent in prayer, for instance a family rosary," Taylor said in the letter.

The public celebration of Mass in the state was suspended altogether later that month "with the exception of small, self-contained groups at the discretion of the priest," Taylor wrote.

"This was consistent with the steps taken in dioceses throughout the world and lasted for six weeks," he wrote.

On May 4, he said, he allowed in-person Mass to resume "on a limited basis," with requirements for participants to wear masks, for the space used not to exceed 25% of its capacity and for 6 feet of space to be maintained between family groups.

The occupancy limit was raised to 66% of a church's capacity on June 15, he said.

"Today I am happy to announce that our anti-COVID protocols have been effective in preventing the spread of the disease at Mass," Taylor wrote.

People who feel ill, are in isolation or quarantine, or are "especially vulnerable, for instance due to chronic illness or the frailty of old age," will be exempt from the requirement to attend "but still have the obligation to otherwise keep the Lord's Day holy," Taylor wrote.

The requirement will be reinstated effective Thursday, he said.

Those who are turned away in the event that a church and overflow areas are at capacity will have met their obligation "so long as they then participate in Mass via the Internet, or observe some other way of keeping holy the Lord's Day, for instance through a family rosary or time spent in eucharistic adoration," Taylor said in the letter.

VIRTUAL CLASSES

Meanwhile, at least six public schools across the state that shifted to virtual instruction last week in response to virus concerns were scheduled to continue with online-only classes through the end of this week.

Those are Parkview and Southwest high schools and Gibbs Elementary in Little Rock; Buffalo Island Central High School in Monette, east of Jonesboro; Douglas MacArthur Junior High in Jonesboro; and Southwood Elementary School in Pine Bluff.

In addition, Arkadelphia High School was scheduled to switch to virtual instruction for the week starting Monday.

Lonoke High School, which went to online-only classes Tuesday, was scheduled to reopen to in-person instruction Thursday.

Jacksonville Lighthouse Elementary, part of the Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School, was scheduled to hold all-virtual classes through Oct. 8.

The 22,000-student Little Rock School District reported that, last week, 28 students tested positive for the coronavirus, up from 10 the previous week.

Four employees also tested positive last week, down from the nine who tested positive the previous week.

In addition, 125 other students and 47 employees were required to quarantine last week because of their proximity to someone who had tested positive, the district reported.

The previous week, 146 students and 45 employees were required to quarantine.

Hutchinson and Education Secretary Johnny Key have said they expect school to be open to in-person instruction every day when classes are normally held, although the schools also can offer virtual options and shift to all-online classes in response to virus cases.

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