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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - This 2020 electron microscope made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention image shows the spherical coronavirus particles from the first U.S. case of covid-19. (C.S. Goldsmith, A. Tamin/CDC via AP)

ROGERS -- The rise in covid-19 cases is coming from community events such as sports, church and private social gatherings, including Halloween parties, an Arkansas Department of Health official said.

Washington and Benton counties had 2,191 active cases combined as of Thursday afternoon. The two counties had a combined total of 911 active cases about a month earlier on Oct. 9. A person with an active case of the virus has not recovered.

Covid-19 cases in Northwest Arkansas and the rest of the state are "really alarming" and all the more reason for people to adhere to guidelines, especially during the holidays, Dr. Jennifer Dillaha of the Health Department said.

People are gathering and not following the recommended precautions of wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart, she said. It's getting harder to identify exactly where they contracted the virus or who they were around because people may have been at multiple gatherings or may not be sure who all they were around, Dillaha said.

"People are tired of the pandemic, and they want to go back to living their lives as they prefer, and that's a hard thing to do and prevent the spread of covid-19," she said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday announced a covid-19 winter task force, which he said is needed because the winter months will be challenging. The task force will look for ways to relieve hospitals as hospitalizations increase in the state, Hutchinson said.

Holiday concerns

The region's largest health care organizations expressed concern about the rising covid-19 cases and hospitalizations in a joint statement released Wednesday. Hospitals in Benton and Washington counties had 86 covid-19 patients as of Tuesday, according to the statement via Martine Pollard, spokeswoman for Mercy Health System. That is an increase from 62 patients Nov. 5 and 53 on Oct. 29, according to past statements.

Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers has a covid-19 unit with 60 beds. Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville has three covid-19 units with a total capacity of 54 patients. Northwest Health has declined to say how many beds it has dedicated to covid-19 patients at its medical centers in the region.

"We are concerned that with covid fatigue, going into colder weather and holidays, people will relax the safety practices that help combat the virus," Eric Pinalto, president of Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers, said in the joint statement released Wednesday.

"I've had to have tough conversations with my own family members about not being able to have our traditional large holiday gatherings this year," he continued. "It's difficult not to be able to see our loved ones like we once did, but the risk of contracting the virus is too great -- especially for those that are older or with underlying health conditions."

Dillaha suggested families use video technology so they can see and talk to each other while having holiday dinners at separate households.

"Basically, we want to encourage people for their holiday meals to have dinner with their household," Dillaha said. "We discourage the mixing of households."

Dr. Jose Romero, the state's health secretary, said Tuesday during Hutchinson's press briefing he recommends not bringing family members who live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities to holiday gatherings.

"That not only puts your family member at risk for exposure, but could also put other people in the facility at risk," Dillaha said.

Rogers Mayor Greg Hines urged residents to follow public health guidelines during Tuesday's City Council meeting and to encourage their friends, family, neighbors and coworkers to do the same.

"We believe that the majority of these new cases are not single-point cases. They are community spread in neighborhoods likely due to gatherings of friends, and, while I know everyone is fatigued with this, that remains to be the largest reason for the spread," he said.

Congregate settings

Hutchinson expressed concern Tuesday about cases tied to places of worship. He has cited separation of church and state as to why the state's mask mandate does not apply to houses of worship, but has repeatedly encouraged church-goers to wear masks and socially distance or attend services online.

Benton and Washington counties each had between 201 and 250 covid-19 cases traced to places of worship from May 3 to Oct. 4, according to the Health Department.

The department does not plan to release reports of cases at individual churches, as it does with other settings, such as job sites, schools, jails and nursing homes, according to Danyelle McNeill, spokeswoman.

Cross Church, which says it has 3,600 members across its campuses in Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers, resumed in-person services May 31 and continues to offer services online, according to Brian Dunaway, director of communications for the church. The churches are seeing about half the in-person attendees as before the pandemic, he said.

The churches are taking precautions such as seating people every other row and leaving three empty seats between groups. Cross Church is recommending masks and has them available if people forget to bring theirs, Dunaway said. Staff and volunteers are required to wear masks, he said.

Dunaway said Cross Church is aware of members who have had the virus and then followed protocols such as quarantining. He was not aware of members who definitely contracted the virus from attending church.

Dillaha recommended churches not have choirs singing together. People singing solo in church should wear a mask and/or be at least 12 feet away from others, she said.

She also expressed concern about the virus spreading among sports teams and fans.

Bentonville Public Schools canceled Bentonville West's Class 7A playoff game that was scheduled for Friday at Wolverine Stadium in Centerton after 14 students and coaches tested positive for the virus and others had to be quarantined.

The district announced Friday its two high schools would pivot to online instruction for two weeks starting Monday.

Springdale Public Schools had 116 active covid-19 cases as of Thursday, the most of any school district in the state, according to the Health Department. The district is also the largest in the state. Rogers Public Schools had the second-most with 76 active cases. Bentonville had 39, and Fayetteville had 21, according to the department. The data includes students, faculty and staff.

More confined settings, such as jails and nursing homes, also had increases in cases.

The Health Department generally releases a report each Friday detailing cases and deaths related to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The most recent data available at noon Friday was updated Nov. 6.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Benton and Washington counties had more than 250 active cases among residents and staff members.

The Benton County Jail reported 256 of 611 inmates tested positive for the virus last week.

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Demographics

Benton County had a cumulative 9,977 covid-19 cases as of noon Friday. Washington County had 13,049 cumulative cases, and the state had 128,006 cases. The data includes confirmed and positive cases.

A breakdown of cases in Arkansas include:

• 48.5% male, 50.9% female, 0.6% unknown gender and/or sex

• 60.6% white, 19.1% Black, 2% native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 1% Asian, 10.8% unknown race, 5.5% other race

• 85.4% non-Hispanic, 14.6% Hispanic

Source: Arkansas Department of Health

Alex Golden may be reached by email at [email protected]

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