Hospitalizations of patients with covid-19 rose to an all-time high of 1,817 in Arkansas on Monday, while the number of active cases fell for the second day in a row.
"Active cases are down by more than 9,000 since Saturday, but hospitalizations show the biggest increase of 184 in one day," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on a Monday afternoon social media post. "Today, we have additional beds coming online, and we're asking the legislature for an additional $4.7 million to open up more beds at [the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences]."
The number of cases in the state that were considered active fell by 7,483 to 93,314, meaning that more people have recovered or died from the disease than have been diagnosed with it.
Another 3,243 new cases of the coronavirus were reported Monday, raising the cumulative total to 741,881, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. A week ago Monday, the state reported 3,600 new cases.
The state's death toll from the virus since March 2020, as tracked by the Health Department, rose by 22 to 9,532.
Testing for the virus was lower over the weekend compared with the rest of the week, with 14,424 PCR and antigen tests reported Saturday, 10,607 on Sunday and 7,005 on Monday, for a total of 32,036.
But the number was higher the previous weekend, Jan. 15-17, when a total of 44,772 tests were reported.
From Jan. 18 to Monday, 73,372 PCR tests and 21,058 antigen tests were reported -- 33,317 fewer total tests than the 127,747 reported between Jan. 11-17.
The state has received the 1.5 million rapid at-home tests that were purchased last month. The tests were distributed to local health units around the state, as well as to libraries and other community organizations to give out free of charge to state residents.
The state isn't expecting to order or receive any more of the at-home tests, said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer.
It's difficult to determine how greatly the at-home tests affect the case numbers because most people do not report positive cases from the at-home tests, Dillaha said.
"The reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. In addition to unreported cases that are identified through home tests, there are many asymptomatic cases that never get tested at all," Dillaha said. "So the cases that are reported help us at ADH understand the trends, but we do not use them to determine the prevalence of infection."
Dillaha said she doesn't believe the surge, mostly related to the omicron variant, has peaked in Arkansas yet.
"No, not yet," she said. "We hope it will be soon."
A state panel Monday endorsed the state Department of Health's request for $4.74 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for UAMS to expand its covid-19 hospital bed capacity.
With no audible dissenting votes and Health Secretary Jose Romero recusing, Arkansas' 15-member American Rescue Plan steering committee voted to recommend approval of the Department of Health's request.
Using existing hospital staffing, a total of 27 beds can be made available at UAMS with $4,747,500 in American Rescue Plan funds, the department said in its written request for the funding.
These beds will consist of 20 negative-pressure, medical covid-19 beds at $4,500 per bed for 30 days and seven negative pressure, intensive care unit covid-19 beds at $6,500 per bed for 45 days, according to the Department of Health.
Romero told the steering committee that the number of hospitalized covid-19 patients increased by 184 and that's the largest single increase in a day during the pandemic.
The total hospitalized covid-19 patients is now 1,817 and that exceeds the high-water mark at any time during the pandemic, he said.
Romero said UAMS' new beds will be available immediately.
"Beds are scarce," he said.
Afterward, Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin said the Department of Health's request will be on the supplemental agenda for this morning's meeting of the Legislative Council Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee.
The subcommittee's recommendation will go to the Legislative Council, which meets Friday.
Two weeks ago, the state Department of Health's request for $50.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to open up 265 more beds at 11 hospitals across the state in response to the surge of the omicron variant won the endorsement of the American Rescue Plan steering committee. Legislative leaders subsequently signed off on the request to use the federal funds. At that time, Romero said the request for $50.1 million will help finance "outside staff" to increase bed capacity.
In May, Hutchinson appointed the steering committee, comprised of nine Hutchinson administration officials and six state lawmakers, to recommend the best uses of $1.57 billion in federal recovery funds and $157 million in federal capital project funds under the American Rescue Plan. In March, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion law that is designed to help the U.S. recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.
The state also reported Monday that 17 more people were placed in intensive care unit beds, raising the total to 493. Those requiring ventilators rose by 19 to 215, according to Health Department data.
As of Monday afternoon, the number of available hospital beds remained the same at 1,782 while just 45 ICU beds remained available in hospitals around the state, up four from the previous day.
Hospitals in the Baptist Health system hit their highest point since the beginning of the pandemic with 343 covid-19 patients -- including 97 in the ICU and 63 on ventilators, spokeswoman Cara Wade said.
"We are currently caring for the most covid-19 patients we've ever had in our hospitals at a single time since the pandemic began, and available hospital beds are extremely limited," Wade said. "Once we see a steady decline in active covid-19 cases in the state then we would be very hopeful that a decrease in hospitalizations would soon follow. The best defense against covid-19 continues to be getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and social distancing."
Baptist Health, like most hospitals across the country, is experiencing staffing shortages, Wade said.
"Today, we are down 271 employees of our approximately 11,000 due to reasons related covid-19," Wade said. "Employees also are affected when they have other family members impacted. For example, when students go virtual for school, we lose parents needing to stay home."
UAMS had 86 covid-19 patients as of Monday afternoon, including 12 in the ICU and six on ventilators, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
Of those patients, 44 are fully vaccinated.
Out of the 11,000 UAMS employees, 510 are not cleared to work and 229 are covid-positive. About 281 health care workers are not cleared to work and 148 tested positive for covid-19.
"The numbers of staff not cleared to work and positive is down from last week and this weekend," Taylor said. "We are hopeful that we will continue to see a decline in employees testing positive and not cleared to work rather than the increase in numbers we normally see at the beginning of a work week."
Hilary DeMillo, spokeswoman for Arkansas Children's Hospital, said there are 43 covid-19 patients across the system with five in ICU and seven on ventilators.
"Our numbers have been steady, and we expect the volume to continue this week," DeMillo said. "We continue to work creatively throughout the day to solve challenges created by staffing shortages. At this moment, we are doing well and have the staff to manage our current volume. We are being diligent, watching trends closely and making adjustments in real time to be proactive."
Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System spokesman Christopher Durney said in an email Monday that the system is caring for 31 covid-positive patients, down from a high of 53 last week. Eight are in the ICU.
"We are seeing a marked decrease in hospitalizations and effects on staff availability. We are hopeful that we have seen the Omicron peak, but we continue to keep a very close eye on Veteran and staff infection rates, which has so far allowed us to remain flexible throughout the pandemic," Durney said in an email. "I can tell you from experience that I am grateful that I am fully vaccinated and boosted. I weathered the virus quite well with only mild symptoms."
Hospitals in Benton and Washington counties set a record Monday with a collective 183 patients hospitalized for covid-19, according to the Northwest Arkansas Council.
That beat the former high of 173, set on Aug. 11.
The council, in an email Monday, provided a statement from Dr. Mark Thomas, vice president and medical director of population health at Washington Regional Medical Center.
While the region is seeing a significant increase in covid-19 hospitalizations, fewer of these patients are critically ill or require intensive care or ventilators than covid-19 patients at the peak of the delta variant surge in August, Thomas said.
Because of the high transmissibility of the omicron variant, hospitals are seeing some vaccinated, asymptomatic patients incidentally testing positive after being admitted for non-covid health issues, according to the email.
"Dr. Thomas continues to stress the importance of remaining up-to-date on vaccinations -- receiving a booster dose when eligible -- as patients who are fully vaccinated and boosted are five times less likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19," the email states.
The ages of covid-19 patients in Northwest Arkansas on Monday ranged from less than 1 to 96; the average age was 46, according to the council.
There were 85 ICU beds in use Monday, down from the all-time high of 140 on Sept. 8, according to the council. There were 36 ventilators in use, compared with the record 87 on Sept. 2. The numbers include patients with covid-19 and those with other medical needs.
The number of vaccine doses that providers reported having administered rose by 1,370 to 3,852,946.
The number of individuals fully immunized increased by 280, to a total of 1,536,187, or 54%, of Arkansans 5 years old and up. The number of Arkansans partially immunized against the virus increased by 157, to 372,664, or 13.1%, of the population 5 years old and up.
As of Monday, 506,350 third vaccine doses had been administered.
"We are concerned about vaccination rates. We would like to see more people get vaccinated, and if they are already vaccinated, we encourage people to get their booster shots if they haven't already," Dillaha said. "Get vaccinated and boosted, wear masks, practice social distancing and good hand hygiene, and stay home when you're sick."
Health Department data indicates that Pulaski County had the largest increase in cases reported Monday, with the count rising by 454.
The next-highest increase was Benton County, with 431, followed by Washington County, with 202.
Information for this article was contributed by Dave Perozek of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.