Arkansas cases up 1,987; 'difficult fall' feared

Barbara McDonald, an advanced practice registered nurse for UAMS, screens patients Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 during a drive-thru covid-19 testing at the Lonoke Community Center. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Friday by 1,987 -- the biggest one-day new case total since early February.

Already at its highest level since Feb. 3, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by 22, to 871.

It was the 18th day in a row that the number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 increased.

The state death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by six, to 6,041.

State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha called the numbers "disconcerting," especially with the start of the 2021-22 school year just weeks away.

"I think that it's going to be a very difficult fall because of where we are," Dillaha said.

She and other public health officials have blamed the recent steep rise in cases on the fast-spreading delta variant and Arkansas' low vaccination rate.

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"The delta variant shows no sign at this point in time of slowing down," Dillaha said.

"I think the only way to make it slow down is to get more people vaccinated -- a lot more people."

In a tweet, Gov. Asa Hutchinson referred to the increase of 14,294 in the vaccine doses that providers reported administering, the largest jump in a single day since May 14.

"Today's report shows the highest increase in vaccine doses administered in weeks," Hutchinson said.

"This is progress, but with an increase of over 1,000 active cases and 22 new hospitalizations, we're in a race to get more vaccines into arms before school starts."

Excluding 2,932 cases added in Arkansas as part of a "data cleanup" on Feb. 28, the increase in cases on Friday was the largest in a single day since Feb. 4.

The average daily case increase in the state over a rolling seven-day period rose to 1,390, its highest level since the week ending Feb. 9.

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Already at its highest level since Jan. 26, the number of covid-19 patients on ventilators rose by one, to 159.

The number in intensive care, however, fell by six, to 328.

With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of cases considered active increased by 1,005, to 13,784, the largest number since Feb. 10.

According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rankings on Friday, Arkansas led the country in covid-19 deaths per capita over the seven-day span ending Thursday after tying with Louisiana for the second-highest rate a day earlier.

Arkansas' 54 deaths during the week translated to a rate of 1.8 per 100,000 residents.

Florida had the next-highest rate, 1.7 per 100,000 residents.

Arkansas' new cases per capita continued to be the country's third-highest, behind Louisiana and Florida.

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Citing the rise in cases, UAMS Medical Center in Little Rock said that it would begin limiting patients to one visitor a day, and a Central Arkansas ambulance service warned that response times could be delayed.

"We are not trying to create fear," said Greg Thompson, executive director of Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services.

"We just want the public to understand what is happening."

The ambulance service serves all of Pulaski County, except Jacksonville, plus all of Faulkner and Grant counties, and Cabot.

Thompson said the service responds to about 200 calls on a typical day but has seen days with more than 250 in recent weeks.

As hospitals fill up, service slows.

"When we get to the hospital, there's not a bed for them to find, to get the patient off our bed," Thompson said.

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"The hospitals are doing everything they can."

The service triages calls as they come in, so life-threatening situations will have priority, he noted.

"This is a slow-moving mass casualty incident," Thompson said.

"We are doing our best. We are working with the hospitals. We are working hard to take care of our crews. We have had some incentive pay for extra help and overtime."

He said the conversation around covid-19 often doesn't include how it affects emergency response.

"The car wreck that has nothing to with covid has everything to do with covid because the response is slowed by covid," Thompson said.


The limit on visitors at UAMS Medical Center will take effect Monday.

Previously, patients could have several visitors per day as long as only one at a time was in the patient's room.

"We know the importance of family presence for our patients and regret having to make this change, but we were forced to do so in order to protect our patients, staff and visitors," CEO Steppe Mette said in a news release.

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"We have already had one patient infected with COVID by a visitor. With the workforce shortage hospitals are facing now, we must minimize the risk of infection for our medical staff and care teams."

The hospital said that it will comply with the state No Patient Left Alone Act, "particularly for patients with disabilities and elderly patients who may have dementia or difficulty seeing or hearing."

The law, signed by Hutchinson in March, requires hospitals to allow children to have visits from their parents or guardians and adults to have visits from their spouses.

An adult with disabilities also must be able to have visits from a legal guardian or other designated support person.

The hospital said that it will continue requiring visitors to pass a health screening and wear a photo ID badge and mask. The hospital said that it also uses "digital visitation to help patients stay connected with loved ones virtually."

"We will, of course, continue to allow additional visitors for end-of-life situations," said Mette.

"Our staff has worked closely with families over the past 18 months to ensure they have as much contact with their loved ones as possible, and they've come up with very creative ways to keep families connected and protected from the spread of COVID. We have to be much stricter until COVID cases in Arkansas are under control and the number of patients in our hospital decreases dramatically."

Spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said the hospital had 57 covid-19 patients on Friday, approaching its record of 63 in January.

The patients on Friday included 23 in intensive care, 14 on ventilators and five who were on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machines, which are similar to heart-lung bypass machines used in open-heart surgeries.

UAMS, which has 11,000 employees, also had 120 employees who were either isolating at home after testing positive for covid-19 or in quarantine after being in close proximity to someone with the virus, Taylor said.


Also on Friday, Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis joined a dozen Democratic state lawmakers from Pulaski County in calling for a legislative session to lift a state law's prohibition on government mask mandates.

"Let's be clear. Neither I nor my colleagues are calling for a statewide mask mandate," Ingram said in a statement.

"We are only seeking to repeal a statewide ban on mask mandates. That will enable our communities, and especially our local school boards, to make decisions that are best suited for protecting the health of the children they serve."

When it takes effect Wednesday, Act 1002, signed by Hutchinson in April, will bar state and local governments, including schools, from mandating that an individual use a mask, face shield or other face covering.

Asked about Ingram's statement, Hutchinson spokeswoman Shealyn Sowers referred to a statement issued by the governor a day earlier.

"Right now my focus is getting more people vaccinated in Arkansas," Hutchinson said in the statement.

"The best tool to fight the Delta variant and have a safe school year is to increase the vaccination rate in the state. I have not had any local school leaders reach out regarding an amendment to the law prohibiting mask mandates."

Governor's School going remote

In Russellville, officials with the Arkansas Governor's School announced Friday that they are sending students home today and shifting to remote learning after three students and one staff member tested positive for the coronavirus.

About 370 rising high school seniors in the program will begin leaving the Arkansas Tech University campus starting this morning.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we will transition the remainder of the 42nd Arkansas Governor's School to a virtual format that will allow students to complete the curriculum from home," said Robin Lasey, director of the program, and co-director Jeff Woods in a statement issued Friday night.

The program will continue remotely until its scheduled conclusion Aug. 1.


In response to the recent uptick in vaccinations, Arkansas this week ordered 12,200 vaccine doses from the federal government for next week, its largest order in months.

The order includes 7,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine that will go to pharmacies, clinics and hospitals and 4,100 Moderna doses that will go the Health Department's local health units.

The state also ordered 900 doses of Pfizer vaccine that will be split evenly between a clinic in West Memphis and a pharmacy in Piggott.

"The last couple of weeks, the uptake of vaccine has increased by about 45%, and we are getting close to depleting our stock in certain locations," Dillaha said.

Although the state as of earlier this week had almost 102,000 Pfizer doses that were set to expire at the end of next week, Dillaha said the state ordered more because it was easier to have it shipped directly to the two providers than send it from the Health Department's headquarters in Little Rock.

She said the state plans to have ultracold freezers installed in four of its health units around the state so the Pfizer vaccine can be more easily distributed to other health units and health care providers.

Of the three vaccines that have been authorized for use in the United States, Pfizer's is the only one that can be administered to children.

It's allowed for people 12 and older, while the vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are allowed for people 18 and older.


The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period, including second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, rose Friday to 8,093, the largest number since the week ending May 26, according to Health Department figures.

Despite the increased vaccination pace, however, Dillaha said that it likely will take months for a large enough percentage of the state's population to be vaccinated to suppress the virus's spread.

"It's hard to know what that proportion needs to be," Dillaha said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it was 80%."

People who aren't yet fully vaccinated can help slow the spread, she said, by taking precautions such as wearing a mask in public places and avoiding crowded places where a large number of the people are likely to be unvaccinated.

People receiving their first doses appear to be driving the uptick in vaccinations.

According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one dose rose Friday by 7,171.

That was larger by more than 3,100 than the increase a week earlier.

The average daily increase in the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose to 5,701, the largest number since the week ending April 26.

The increase on Friday raised the number to 1,352,937, representing about 44.8% of the state's population.

The number of Arkansans who had been fully vaccinated rose by 2,475, to 1,077,347, or about 35.7% of the population.

Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 45th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose and 49th, ahead of only Mississippi and Alabama, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.

Nationally, 56.5% of people had received at least one vaccine dose, and 48.9% were fully vaccinated.

To encourage more Arkansans to get the shots, Hutchinson this month began holding meetings around the state to answer residents' questions about the virus and vaccines.

On Friday, he released details of the "community covid conversations" he plans to hold next week.

They will be at 11:45 a.m. Monday at Vada Sheid Community Development Center at Arkansas State University-Mountain Home; 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Dumas Community Center; 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Heber Springs High School performing arts center; and 11 a.m. Friday at the Siloam Springs Community Building.


Dillaha said that all of the deaths reported Friday happened within the past month.

She said 14.1% of coronavirus tests in the state were positive during the seven-day span ending Thursday, the same percentage that was initially reported for the week ending Wednesday.

Pulaski County had the most new cases on Friday, 262, followed by Benton County with 220 and Washington County with 169.

The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 372,313.

The number of residents who have ever been hospitalized with confirmed infections rose by 72, to 18,091.

The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by one, to 1,835.

Information for this article was contributed by Teresa Moss of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.