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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson arrives Tuesday Sept. 29, 2020 in Little Rock for his weekly covid-19 briefing at the state Capitol. See more photos at arkansasonline.com/930governor/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal) - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Covid-19 hospitalizations in Arkansas climbed to their highest level yet on Sunday as the state reported an additional 1,038 new covid-19 cases, the fifth day in a row with more than 1,000 virus cases.

As of Sunday, 741 patients were hospitalized because of covid-19, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. The count exceeded the latest hospitalization record set on Saturday as 19 more individuals were admitted to medical facilities.

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The concurrent number of hospitalizations in Arkansas began to climb steadily in mid-September from just under 400 to the record high on Sunday.

In an interview on Sunday, Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the state epidemiologist, did not offer specifics when asked if she or other officials have advocated measures to Gov. Asa Hutchinson in recent weeks to bring down hospitalizations, and if not, whether there is a level of hospitalizations that would lead them to do so.

"We are in constant dialogue with the governor about things that we could do in Arkansas," Dillaha said. She referred to a draft list of options developed by the Department of Health, which was recently provided to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The list of options included reducing the acceptable size of indoor and outdoor gatherings and increasing the frequency of Hutchinson's virus briefings. It also included a proposed 28-day pause that would bar social gatherings of more than 10 people, shift the state to virtual education and close bars and restaurants to on-site dining.

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Dillaha said she has not taken a particular position on any of the options developed by the Department of Health. "They all are good possibilities. ... Each has its plus and its minus to it," she said.

When asked about the increasing hospitalizations -- an important metric used to gauge the strain on the health care system -- she declined to say what officials with the Department of Health, the agency leading the state's response to the covid-19 crisis, have told the executive branch in terms of options.

"You'll need to ask the governor what we're talking about. I'm not in the position to discuss with you what we are discussing with the governor at this point," Dillaha said.

She added that "it would not be appropriate" to talk about the subject, and she said officials are discussing "with the governor, not with the press right now."

An interview request with Dr. Jose Romero, the secretary of the Department of Health, regarding measures the state is taking to reverse the recent upward trajectory of covid-19 cases in the state was declined.

In an email, department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said Romero was not available on Sunday.

The 1,038 new cases reported Sunday marked a decrease from Friday and Saturday -- days that saw the highest and second-highest numbers of new covid-19 cases, respectively, since the start of the pandemic. However, the latest tally of covid-19 cases was high for a Sunday, when the state typically sees a slightly lower number of new cases.

In response to the latest covid-19 cases, Hutchinson in a statement said Arkansas was "likely headed for a difficult week."

"Let's all be safe and take action to protect each other. Follow the guidelines," Hutchinson wrote on Twitter on Sunday afternoon.

Deaths in the state rose by 17, for a total of 2,085. All of the newly reported deaths on Sunday occurred among confirmed covid-19 patients, according to the Department of Health.

The number of patients on ventilators declined by three on Sunday, for a total of 103.

Of the new cases reported on Sunday, 916 were classified as confirmed based on a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. The remaining 122 were classified as probable cases.

Active cases in Arkansas also set a record on Sunday as an increase of 328 brought the state's active-case total to 12,480. The cumulative number of covid-19 infections since March rose to 121,866 on Sunday.

On Saturday, results from 9,501 PCR tests were reported to health officials, plus 954 of the less-sensitive, rapid antigen tests. More than 69,000 PCR tests and nearly 10,000 antigen tests have been conducted in Arkansas this month, according to the Department of Health.

The highest number of new covid-19 cases was reported in Sebastian County, with 102, followed by Pulaski County with 97, Washington County with 76, Craighead County with 59 and Benton County with 58.

Correctional facilities accounted for 109 of the confirmed cases reported Sunday, according to the Department of Health.

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Health officials classified an additional 536 people as having recovered from covid-19 after confirmed diagnoses. A total of 99,179 people in the state have now recovered after confirmed tests.

With virus cases surging nationwide, Dillaha said it was "really hard to predict" whether the U.S. might have to return to the more stringent lockdown measures seen in the spring, when reported cases of the virus in the U.S. had just started to rise.

"Hopefully, we will be able to mitigate some of the spread through the availability of a vaccine in the near future. But a vaccine will not totally negate the need to take stringent measures to control the virus if it continues to increase at the rate that it is in our country," she said.

SCHOOL CASES

The Little Rock School District reported nine new virus cases, all but one among students, and 41 more individuals who have entered quarantine, according to the district's weekend covid-19 report released on Sunday.

One official in the district's administration tested positive for the virus. Three students at Mabelvale Middle School tested positive, along with one student each at five other schools in the district.

Eight Mabelvale students and 12 Fulbright Elementary School students entered a period of isolation due to potential exposure, according to the district's latest report.

Additionally, the Prairie Grove School District in Washington County announced on Sunday that all district schools would shift to virtual instruction for three days beginning today because of the number of staff members in quarantine.

"The quarantine requirements have really affected our child nutrition staff, bus drivers, custodians, several teachers, and building level administrators," the school district said in a Facebook post.

All district schools will remain closed through Wednesday, according to the school district.

In the most recent Department of Health report on educational institutions released on Thursday, the Prairie Grove School District was said to have a cumulative total of 17 virus cases, eight among staff members and nine among students. Six of those cases were still active, according to the report.

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