Arkansas reports 4,747 new cases of covid; active cases more than double in a week's time to 61,122

George "CJ" Hudson (center), 8, holds his mother, Ashley's, hand while getting his covid-19 vaccine from physician assistant Janet Rader (right) on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at the UAMS Vaccine Clinic in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
George "CJ" Hudson (center), 8, holds his mother, Ashley's, hand while getting his covid-19 vaccine from physician assistant Janet Rader (right) on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at the UAMS Vaccine Clinic in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The total number of active covid-19 cases in the state passed the 61,000 mark Monday, more than doubling since the same day a week ago and marking an all-time high since the pandemic hit the state.

The state also had 12,736 active cases among patients from newborn to 18 years old -- three times the number a week ago when the state Department of Health reported 4,235 active pediatric cases. Some medical providers asked school districts in their service area to adopt a mask mandate.

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The number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 rose by 58 to 1,068, after the state surpassed the 1,000 mark on Sunday for the first time in more than three months.

"We have received our first shipment of rapid at-home tests, and those tests are in the process of being distributed around the state," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on social media Monday afternoon. "I have also requested $50 million of American Rescue Plan funding to be used to increase hospital capacity."

Another 4,747 cases of the coronavirus were reported, raising the cumulative total to 622,069, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

Mondays typically have at most just a few hundred new covid cases.

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Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said the numbers say the omicron variant is spreading and is "extremely contagious."

"As a result, the number of hospitalizations is increasing rapidly. This is very concerning, because the increase in the number of people being admitted to the hospital is occurring at the same time that many health care workers are becoming ill with covid-19," Dillaha said. "This will make it more difficult for everyone -- not just those with covid-19 -- to get the care that they need."

The omicron variant is able to partially escape the protection a person acquires by becoming fully vaccinated as well as the immunity level provided by prior infection with other variants, Dillaha said.

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"So people are getting reinfected a second or a third time," she said. "In addition, the omicron variant is able to escape the protection provided by treatment with the monoclonal antibodies that were used to keep people with covid-19 out of the hospital when the delta variant was dominant. Fortunately, there is still one monoclonal antibody that works against the omicron variant, but the demand is very high and it is in short supply."

Active cases increased by 1,543 to 61,122 on Monday after steadily increasing from 27,162 a week ago.

In a state of roughly 3 million people, covid is an active infection in about 1 in 50 people.

Of those active cases, 61% were not fully vaccinated, while 39% were fully vaccinated.

"Many people in the fully-vaccinated group have not received their recommended booster dose," Dillaha said. "It is especially important for fully vaccinated people at increased risk for severe illness to get their booster dose."

Currently, only 43% of people in Arkansas who are 65 and older are fully vaccinated and have received their booster dose. In younger age groups, the boosted proportion is even smaller, Dillaha said.

"People who are fully vaccinated and boosted are at the lowest risk for getting infected and being admitted to the hospital," Dillaha said.

HOSPITALIZATIONS

As the number of those hospitalized with covid-19 continues to rise, hospitals around the state are feeling the pressure.

"Omicron is taking a toll on our front-line staff. They are tired and many are having to work extra shifts to fill in for co-workers who are ill," Leslie Taylor, spokeswoman for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said. "Today, 615 of our employees system wide are not cleared for work and, of those 270 are positive. Of the 615 not cleared to come to work, 336 are clinical employees, 152 of whom tested positive."

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Statewide, the number of virus patients who were on ventilators rose by 14 to 147 on Monday, and the number in intensive care rose by seven to 304.

Taylor said UAMS has 65 covid-19 patients in the hospital.

"The numbers continue to increase. Saturday we had 47 patients with covid-19 and two weeks ago we had about 30," Taylor said. "Of the 65 patients in the hospital today, 11 are in the intensive care unit, eight are on ventilators."

About 75% of the covid-19 patients at UAMS are unvaccinated, she said.

"Three of our covid-19 patients died in the last three days," Taylor said.

Bonnie Ward, CHI St. Vincent director of marketing and communications, did not give specific numbers, but said in an email that the number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 continues to increase "week over week."

"The significant majority of patients who require hospitalization for COVID-19 at CHI St. Vincent hospitals have not been fully vaccinated, consistently showing that the vaccine has proven successful at minimizing the severity of any related illness," she said. "CHI St. Vincent encourages community members to get vaccinated immediately if they have not already done so and to get a vaccine booster when the time is appropriate."

St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro has 78 covid-19 patients, with 15 in the intensive care unit and four on ventilators, spokesman Mitchell Nail said.

"We have an experienced and resilient staff that is both battle tested and battle weary," Nail said. "Each covid wave strains healthcare workers a little more at the prospect of bed shortages and severely-ill patients, but they have still performed heroic work for the past two years. They know what they're fighting now and how to fight it."

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The Craighead County hospital is seeing a larger percentage of individuals who are double vaccinated, but not boosted, Nail said. Still, the unvaccinated patients comprise about 70% of St. Bernards' covid-19 admissions and more than 95% of those in ICU.

"The omicron variant spreads rapidly, and people should protect themselves however they can. Sadly, we had six patients pass away from the virus in the past week. Six more persons died the week before," Nail said. "So while this variant has not created a shortage of statewide covid ICU beds, it can still be a deadly variant."

Baptist Health Medical Center spokeswoman Cara Wade said the hospital system continues to see daily increases in covid-19 patients with 211 covid-19 patients, including 67 in intensive care and 44 on ventilators.

About 62% of those hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, including 75% of the ICU patients and 82% of those on ventilators, Wade said. Very few of the hospitalized patients have received the vaccine booster dose, she added.

"We are so proud of our health care workers who keep showing up day after day caring for some of the sickest patients in the state. However, staffing is being stretched in ways we didn't see during previous surges," Wade said. "Baptist Health, along with most every hospital across the country, is experiencing nursing shortages. In addition to staffing shortages, we have employees impacted personally – either in quarantine or needing to stay home with their families as many schools go virtual. All of these contribute to an already unfavorable staffing environment."

The next few weeks will be critical to help slow the spread of covid-19 and lessen the burdens on the state's hospitals, Wade said.

"It is more important than ever to take the necessary precautions including wearing a mask, washing your hands, maintaining a physical distance and getting vaccinated," she said.

Taylor said many of the covid-19 cases at UAMS can be attributed to people gathering with friends and family members or going out unmasked in public.

"We are all experiencing mask fatigue and we want to spend time with our loved ones but we need to be mindful of the high transmissibility of this variant," Taylor said. "This isn't the time to let our guards down."

EXTRA BEDS

Hutchinson announced Monday that he has requested $50 million in federal money to be distributed to 11 hospitals in the state to fund extra beds to help during the surge in covid-19 hospitalizations.

The request was endorsed by the Arkansas American Rescue Plan Act Steering Committee, but the disbursement of the funding requires legislative approval.

The proposed plan includes adding 98 covid ICU beds and 167 covid medical beds to be funded for timelines of 28-45 days, based on the recommendations from the Health Department.

TESTS ARRIVE

Arkansas received its first shipment of 211,000 at-home covid-19 tests on Monday, Hutchinson announced.

Deliveries to the respective distribution locations will begin shortly. Hutchinson said the cost of the 1.5 million rapid at-home tests ordered in December will be about $10 million and will be covered by existing funds available in the covid response budgets.

The tests will be available at public libraries, public health units and other locations with the Arkansas National Guard assisting in the delivery.

With the deployment of guard members to help with testing, UAMS has been able to expand the days and hours for its drive-thru covid-19 testing center on the Little Rock campus.

Staff will be on hand from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. seven days a week.

"We are seeing an average of 800 people coming through a day in that center alone," Taylor said. "The positivity rate we are seeing at our testing centers is about 34%."

Ward said the increased volume of patients with mild or no symptoms seeking tests at CHI St. Vincent emergency departments has complicated the delivery of critical care patients and added additional strain on health care staff.

Likewise, Wade said the Baptist Health is seeing more people come to the emergency departments for covid-19 testing.

"Please use the [emergency departments] appropriately," she said. "While we understand that covid-19 tests are hard to find, we ask that people please keep the [emergency departments] available for those who feel severely sick or have an immediate emergency."

There were 10,510 newly reported covid-19 tests Monday, comprising 9,507 PCR and 1,003 antigen tests.

The number of tests have been steadily increasing, with a total of 110,124 tests reported over the past seven days compared to 77,848 the previous week.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, a total of 5,965,551 tests have been reported. Of that number, 645,787 were positive for covid-19, according to Health Department data.

PEDIATRIC CASES

Arkansas Children's Hospital is caring for 29 covid-19 patients across the system, including three in ICU and three on ventilators.

"We are seeing more children admitted and the majority of them are unvaccinated," spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said. "Some are under age 5, but more than half are eligible to be vaccinated."

The staff at Arkansas Children's Hospital have been resilient during the surge, DeMillo said.

"People can honor health care workers by taking the vaccine, getting their children 5 and over vaccinated and following up the adult series with a booster shot, which is affording great protection from serious illness," DeMillo said.

Monday afternoon, Conway Regional Health System joined several pediatric health care providers -- including Arkansas Pediatrics of Conway, Central Arkansas Pediatrics, The Children's Clinic of Conway and Greenbrier, and TLC Pediatrics -- in sending an email to school districts in their service area asking them to adopt districtwide mask mandates.

The letter -- which was signed by Conway Regional President and CEO Matt Troup as well as about a dozen pediatricians -- was sent to school districts in Faulkner, Perry, Conway, Van Buren, Cleburne, Pope and Yell counties.

"It is our mission to meet the needs of those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. In the last two weeks our COVID-19 inpatient census has more than tripled," the letter said. "Unfortunately, this number continues to grow daily. We believe a mask requirement will create a safer environment for students, teachers, and staff at these schools, allowing for in-person learning to continue. We also firmly believe that masking is one of the single most impactful things we can do to reduce spread."

The letter, provided by Conway Regional Medical Center, also cites the impact of covid-19 on the workforce at health care facilities throughout the state, including Conway Regional and the pediatrics clinics represented.

More than 100 Conway Regional employees are unable to work because of testing positive for the virus, Troup said in an email.

The pediatricians represented in the letter are facing "unprecedented hiring challenges" and have multiple staff members out with covid-19, the letter states.

"Thus, not only is our Health System at capacity, but we are also facing severe staffing shortages," the letter reads. "Efforts to slow community spread will help keep our providers at the bedside, where needed."

BY THE NUMBERS

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 10, to 9,333.

Health Department data indicates that Pulaski County had the largest increases in cases reported Monday, with the count rising by 1,048. The next highest increase was Washington County, with 338 followed by Benton County with 322.

VACCINATIONS

The number of vaccine doses that providers reported having administered rose by 8,366 to 3,770,966.

The number of individuals fully immunized increased by 1,296, to a total of 1,518,610, or 53.4%, of Arkansans 5 years old and up. The number of Arkansans partially immunized against the virus increased by 1,834, to 364,466, or 12.8%, of the population 5 years old and up.

As of Monday, 467,830 third vaccine doses had been administered.