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Virus's run in state adds 2,015 cases

by Tess Vrbin | July 25, 2021 at 3:32 a.m.
Sara Winningham, a staff pharmacist at the Rockefeller Cancer Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, prepares vials of the Pfizer vaccine for a vaccination clinic in this May 7, 2021, file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose by 2,015 Saturday, marking the biggest one-day new case total since early February, according to state Department of Health data.

Saturday's increase follows an uptick of 1,987 cases Friday, as the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to surge across the state.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson tweeted Saturday that the state, which had suspended covid-19 updates on weekends, was resuming the updates in the face of the rising cases.

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Deaths from the virus rose by seven Saturday to a total 6,048.

Active cases, as reported by the Health Department, rose Saturday to 15,032. The increase of 1,248 new daily active cases was 243 more than on Friday and 377 more than on July 17.

Four more people were hospitalized with covid-19 Saturday for a total of 875, again the highest number since early February. Saturday was the 19th day in a row that hospitalizations have increased.

On Saturday, 155 covid patients were on ventilators, four fewer than Friday.

Pulaski County had the most new cases with 268. Benton County had 181 new cases, and Washington County had 145.

The vaccination rate in Arkansas has consistently lagged most other states. However, 32,646 vaccine doses were administered from July 18 to Saturday, the highest volume of first doses for a week since late April, state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said.

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On Friday, 14,294 doses of vaccine were administered, the highest single-day increase since May 14. On Saturday, 12,186 more shots were administered, according to Health Department data, 3,317 more than a week earlier.

"I do feel that people are now sensing an increased sense of urgency compared to where we were a month ago," Dillaha said.

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"So many people who delayed vaccination have taken the step to get vaccinated, which gives me a lot of hope for shortening the duration of this surge."

She said the surge is particularly concerning since resumption of school is less than a month away.

"We're going into the school year in a very different situation than we did last year," she said. "There's so much more transmission, and the delta variant is so much more infectious than what was circulating last year at this time."

She said schools should not only enforce mask-wearing and social distancing but also encourage teachers and eligible students to get vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine was approved in May for emergency use in people ages 12 and older.

Hutchinson has been traveling throughout the state this month on a "Community Covid Conversations" tour, listening to people's misgivings about the vaccines and encouraging people to receive them. So far he has been to Batesville, Blytheville, Cabot, Forrest City and Texarkana.

This week he plans stops in Mountain Home, Dumas, Little Rock, Heber Springs and Siloam Springs.

"Information guides behavior, and that is why I will have five more community conversations this week," Hutchinson tweeted Saturday. "Let's be a winner and get the shot."

Meanwhile, a covid-19 outbreak during this year's Arkansas Governor's School forced roughly 370 rising high school seniors from across the state to leave the Arkansas Tech University campus in Russellville on Saturday, just a week before the school's conclusion.

The remainder of the Governor's School, a four-week annual program for gifted students, will be entirely virtual, as it was last year. The program began July 5 and ends Aug. 1.

Dillaha pointed to the shift to virtual as an example of tough decisions school administrators will have to make this late summer and fall.

Connor Keeler, a student at Sylvan Hills High School in Sherwood, said he and the other Governor's School students received the order to leave by email about 7:30 or 8 p.m. Friday.

Earlier Friday, administrators had advised students that some planned events were being canceled and that they should take safety precautions because three students and one staff member had tested positive for covid-19.

Students able to leave the Arkansas Tech campus by 5 p.m. Saturday were required to do so, Keeler said.

Keeler said none of the students were allowed to have their vehicles on campus, so "our parents had to come get us. A couple of people said they didn't know if they'd be able to go home today. I got lucky because my dad was off [work] today, so he came up and got me."

Those who couldn't be picked up Saturday were allowed to stay for one more night, said Robin Lasey, Governor's School director.

Lasey said some of the four people who tested positive were fully vaccinated. All of the students in the program are at least 16 years old and therefore old enough to be vaccinated, but a state law passed in April prohibits covid-19 vaccination requirements in order to access services.

"If we were 100% vaccinated or [had] required that ahead of time, I don't know if it would have eliminated the chance of having covid here," Lasey said.

The decision to send students home and conduct the rest of the program virtually was made after consideration of a variety of factors, such as the vaccination status of the positive cases and the number of close contacts they had "to give us an indication of what the potential spread would be," Lasey said.

Arkansas Tech's student health center had rapid-response tests available, and students had been tested for the virus throughout the Governor's School session, Lasey said.

Some of the positive cases were a result of contact tracing after the first positive case, she said.

"Once we got positive cases, we were able to address it fairly soon," she said. "We don't know how many people will end up getting [covid] or not getting it, but I feel we were able to catch this at the beginning."

Keeler, who said he is fully vaccinated, had been looking forward to the final week of the program. But, instead of a full week of farewells, the students had just a few hours to say goodbye.

Not all of the students were vaccinated, he said.

"It makes me mad because vaccines are safe and effective and proven to work," he said. "So it frustrates me a lot, knowing it could have been prevented."

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