Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose by almost 5,000 Thursday, setting a one-day record and escalating a surge blamed on the fast-spreading omicron variant.
Also Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that the state had purchased 1.5 million home covid-19 tests that will be distributed for free at Department of Health local health units, public libraries and other locations.
He said he had also activated 10 members of the Arkansas National Guard to "assist in the delivery of the rapid tests with urgency."
"Clearly the demand has increased because of omicron, because of the risk that's out there and the rapid rise in cases as well," Hutchinson said.
The 4,978 new cases recorded Thursday broke the previous record of 4,304 on Jan. 1 during the state's winter surge.
It came a day after the state's case count rose by 3,743, which at the time was the third-highest one-day spike since the start of the pandemic.
Pulaski County alone had 1,158 new cases Thursday, a number that Hutchinson called "unbelievable."
"Statewide, a week ago, that would have been considered a big day," the Republican governor said.
At his weekly news conference at the state Capitol, Hutchinson also said 19.7% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive during the seven-day span ending Wednesday, setting a record.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said Wednesday that the previous record was 19% the week ending Jan. 1.
Hutchinson said Thursday, however, that it remains to be seen whether the number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals will rise to the levels it reached last winter or during the summer surge powered by the delta variant.
On Thursday, the number of hospitalized patients remained unchanged, at 585, which was less than half of the peak it reached in the summer.
Asked if it was time to reinstate the statewide mask mandate that he lifted in March, Hutchinson responded, "No."
He did encourage Arkansans celebrating the new year "to simply be mindful of the fast-moving omicron variant," such as by being around people who are vaccinated or by wearing masks and practicing social distancing if they aren't vaccinated.
He said he'll be getting together with vaccinated friends "in a controlled environment."
"I'm not canceling everything in life, but I'm also mindful of omicron and the fact that we do have a spike in cases," Hutchinson said.
Health Secretary Jose Romero was more blunt.
"My recommendation to the general public is: Avoid large gatherings for New Year's," Romero said.
"If you have family and friends that you know are vaccinated and have no symptoms, then I think it's OK to get together, but overall, I would not recommend going anywhere and watching the ball drop."
Hutchinson said he wouldn't recommend that school districts postpone the return of students to classrooms next week after the holiday break, but said "masks are an option that each school district should consider depending on the cases, the level of community spread, and the level of vaccinations."
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox's ruling Wednesday that struck down as unconstitutional a state law banning state and local government mask mandates was "very timely, because that makes it clear without any doubt that the school districts have that ability to determine what is needed in their school environment to protect their students," Hutchinson said.
DEATHS UP BY 18
The state's death toll from the coronavirus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose Thursday by 18, to 9,131, an increase that Hutchinson called "a result of this being around too long and the lack of numbers in vaccination that we'd like to have."
The average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose to 2,183, the first time it had been above 2,000 since the week ending Sept. 6.
With new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 4,031, to 18,644, the largest number since Sept. 12.
After rising a day earlier, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators fell by six, to 104.
The number who were in intensive care rose by 12, to 200, after falling a day earlier.
The number of intensive care unit beds in the state's hospitals that were unoccupied fell by seven, to 66.
People with covid-19 made up almost 19% of all the state's intensive care unit patients Thursday, up slightly from almost 18% a day earlier.
Romero said the iHealth home test kits were purchased Thursday using $10 million in grant money from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and are expected to arrive within a couple of weeks.
Noting that Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock had been seeing record numbers of people this week at its drive-thru testing site, Hutchinson said the home tests will "relieve some of the burden on our health care workers, as well as help address the rapid spread of omicron."
He said he had visited a number of pharmacies over the past few days asking about the availability of such tests, and "the answer has consistently come back: 'We're out.'"
The purchase followed an announcement last week by President Joe Biden that the federal government will buy 500 million at-home tests that will be distributed for free to Americans who request them starting next month.
Hutchinson has complained that the move reduced the number of tests available for purchase by state governments and retailers.
Meanwhile, Romero said the state has only a small supply of treatments that are expected to work against omicron.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said the state as of Thursday had received 320 packs of Paxlovid, the antiviral pill from Pfizer, and 60 packs of the Merck pill molnupiravir.
An additional 160 packs of Paxlovid and 2,140 packs of molnupiravir are expected to arrive in the next five to seven days, she said.
Dillaha has said the state's initial shipments of the pills will go to Walmart stores, hospitals and other providers.
Arkansas is also expecting to receive 288 doses today of sotrovimab, a monoclonal antibody treatment from Vir Biotechnology and GlaxoSmithKline that is administered through intravenous infusion.
Among the available monoclonal antibody drugs, Romero said sotrovimab is "the treatment of choice" for omicron.
Two other drugs, from Regeneron and Eli Lilly, have "markedly decreased efficacy" against the variant, he said.
McNeill said Arkansas officials will find out Monday how much sotrovimab the state will get in its next allocation from the federal government. The state should receive the additional supply one to two days after putting in a request for it, she said.
Officials won't know until the following week how much the state will get in its second allocation of the antiviral pills from Pfizer and Merck, McNeill said.
It could be several days after that before the additional supplies of those drugs arrive in the state, she said.
Hutchinson also said Thursday that the Health Department has adopted revised recommendations from the CDC that shorten the amount of time people should isolate after testing positive or go into quarantine after exposure to someone with the virus.
Under the revised guidelines, people who test positive should isolate for five days, instead of 10.
After that, people who still have fevers should keep isolating until 24 hours after the fever ends.
Otherwise, people with no symptoms or whose symptoms are "resolving" can leave home after the initial five days, but should wear masks around other people for an additional five days.
People who were exposed to someone with covid-19 should get tests and stay home if they develop symptoms, regardless of their vaccination status.
If they don't have symptoms, people are not required to quarantine in response to an exposure if they are fully vaccinated and not overdue for booster shots, which are recommended six months after the second dose of a two-dose vaccine or two months after the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Those who don't meet the vaccination criteria should stay home for five days, get tested on day five if possible and wear masks around other people for an additional five days.
"This is a significant change that will allow our workers to get back to work quicker with the right precautions," Hutchinson said.
He said the revised guidelines don't effect separate rules that apply to health care workers and in schools.
Despite indications that the omicron variant causes severe illness less often than the delta variant, Romero said he remained worried that the skyrocketing number of cases could translate into a large increase in hospitalized patients.
"We have one children's hospital in this state," Romero said, referring to Arkansas Children's.
"If we see a significant rise in the number of cases in children, we're going to be at risk of overwhelming the main campus down here in Little Rock and the satellite campus" in Springdale.
"That keeps me up at night," he said.
Spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said in an email that Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock had nine covid-19 patients Thursday, including one who was in intensive care. None of the patients were on ventilators, she said.
Arkansas Children's Northwest didn't have any covid-19 patients, she said.
"We currently have the capacity for additional covid-19 and seasonal illness cases," DeMillo said.
She said none of the covid-19 patients in Little Rock had been partially or fully vaccinated, even though all but three of them were age 5 or older, making them eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
In a weekly report, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said 28 school districts had 50 or more new cases per 10,000 residents within their boundaries over a recent 14-day span, up from 26 districts a week earlier.
During the most recent two-week period, ending Monday, five districts, all clustered in northeast Arkansas, had 100 more new cases per 10,000 residents.
The Brookland School District had the highest rate, with its 157 new cases translating to a rate of 143 per 10,000 residents.
The number of new cases per 10,000 residents was 136 in the Nettleton School District, 127 in the Jonesboro School District, 116 in the Westside Consolidated School District and 108 in the Valley View School District.
A week earlier, none of the state's school districts had 100 or more new cases per 10,000 residents.
The cases used to calculate the rates for each district include those among residents living within the district, excluding incarcerated people, and residents of nursing homes and human development centers.
CASES BY COUNTY
After Pulaski County, Craighead County had the most new cases Thursday with 439, followed by Faulkner County with 283.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 562,529.
McNeill said 10 of the deaths reported Thursday occurred within the past month.
Of the others, six happened in August and two were from early in November.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew Thursday by 56, to 29,536.
The number who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by seven, to 3,120.
Hutchinson said he was "puzzled" that the escalation in new cases hadn't led to an uptick in reported vaccinations, although he said that could be because of holiday-related delays in reporting.
On Thursday, the Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 9,625, the sixth daily increase in a row that was smaller than the one a week earlier.
Booster shots made up 46% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 3,066, which was smaller by more than 1,700 than the increase in first doses a week earlier.
The average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 5,989, the first time it had been below 6,000 since the week ending Oct. 23.
The average for first doses fell to 1,939, its lowest level since the week ending Oct. 27.
According to the CDC, the percentage of Arkansans who had received at least one dose remained Thursday at 62.7%, and the percentage who had been fully vaccinated remained at 51.2%.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 30.2% had received booster doses, up from 29.9% a day earlier.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas fell from being roughly tied with South Carolina for No. 36 to No. 37, just below South Carolina, in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose.
In the percentage who were fully vaccinated, Arkansas continued to rank 45th, ahead of only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho.
Nationally, 73.3% of people had received at least one dose, and 62% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 33.4% had received booster doses.