Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Thursday by 1,265 -- the largest one-day increase since the start of the pandemic in March.
The number of people hospitalized with the virus in the state set a record for the third straight day, while the state's covid-19 death toll rose by 21, topping 1,500.
The state's cumulative count of cases grew to more than 90,000.
"That is a sober reminder of what's in front of us and what we are having to deal with every day," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during a meeting of his Cabinet secretaries at the Department of Corrections headquarters building in North Little Rock.
"My message to Arkansas is that it is in virtually every community across the state," the Republican governor said.
"There is not a grocery store, there is not anyplace that you can go that you can avoid being mindful that someone there may have the virus, and the way you protect yourself is the way that we protect ourselves in this room, being socially distant and making sure that you are not in a position to add to that spread."
Individual discipline is important as well as being careful for "our families and ourselves personally," Hutchinson said
"We are Republicans. We are conservative. We don't want to increase restrictions on business. We don't want to increase mandates, and the only way we can navigate through this crisis is by simply making sure that we have individual discipline, we do the right thing for our families, for our community, and we protect each other."
State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said the increase is "an indication that people have let their guards down."
She said 16 counties had increases of more than 20 cases, "and they're all over the state."
"I don't have hard data that tells me why, but I do hear stories of people having pandemic fatigue, and they are making choices to go ahead and carry on social activities without the precautions that are needed to prevent the spread," she said.
The state's previous record for a one-day increase in cases was the 1,180 that were added Sept. 11.
After an uptick following Labor Day weekend, Dillaha said, the spread of the virus in the state had seemed be slowing until Thursday.
"The fact that we have so many counties around the state that have more than 20 cases reported tells me that we have an elevated level of spread around the state, so it would not surprise me if our trend did not continue to be downward," she said.
An accelerated spread of the virus could further increase hospitalizations, which is worrisome heading into the flu season, she said.
"We know that every year, hundreds of people are admitted to the hospital with flu," she said.
"Having that on top of the hundreds of people in the hospital with covid is a concerning prospect."
Taking precautions such as wearing a mask in public and staying at least six feet from people from other households would help prevent people from catching the flu as well as covid-19, she added.
"But it's clear that some people are choosing not to take those steps to prevent the spread of covid-19, so that could actually work to increase the spread of influenza as well," she said.
Covid-19 patients were taking up 243 of the state's 1,002 intensive care units as of Thursday, according to the state Department of Health.
Just 98 of the state's intensive care unit beds were empty.
The state's coronavirus cases have tended to increase toward the end of the week, possibly reflecting results from people who developed symptoms over the weekend and were tested early in the week.
After growing by just 417 cases Monday, the state's count of cases increased by 641 on Tuesday and 809 on Wednesday.
Over a rolling seven-day period, the average number of cases added to the state's total each day rose on Thursday by 20, to 760.
ACTIVE CASES RISE
The increase in cases Thursday included 1,066 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests and 199 "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
At a record level since Tuesday, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose Thursday by nine, to 547.
Those patients included 103 who were on ventilators, up from 98 a day earlier.
All 21 deaths added to the state's total were of confirmed cases. That, and the reclassification of one death that has been listed as being of a probable case, raised the state's death toll among confirmed cases to 1,359.
In addition to cases identified through antigen tests, probable cases include those where no test was performed but covid-19 was listed on a death certificate as a contributing or underlying cause of death.
A death initially listed as that of a probable case is reclassified when a PCR test comes back positive after the death.
The reclassification Thursday lowered the state's count of deaths among probable cases to 144, while the overall toll among confirmed and probable cases rose to 1,503.
The state's cumulative count of probable and confirmed cases rose to 90,145.
That comprised 85,980 confirmed cases and 4,165 probable ones.
The number of cases that were considered active rose by 384, to 7,070, as 860 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by 65, to 5,805.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by eight, to 723.
CASES BY COUNTY
The state's count of confirmed or probable virus cases increased by 116 in Pulaski County, 99 in Washington County, 76 in Benton County, 67 in Sebastian County, 61 in Jefferson County, 55 in Craighead County and 52 in Crawford County.
Among prison and jail inmates, the state's count of cases rose by 17.
Such increases can reflect new cases or ones that were added earlier but not immediately classified as coming from a jail or prison.
Cases among inmates are also sometimes added several days after a test is conducted, after information from laboratory reports is entered into a state database.
During the Cabinet meeting, Department of Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves said 6,675 inmates have contracted covid-19 and 194 inmates have been hospitalized since the start of the pandemic.
He said 339 of the cases remain active. Forty-five inmates have died because of covid-related illnesses, he said.
"We do remain vigilant in our efforts to combat this pandemic in our facilities," Graves said.
"We know firsthand that we are not over this," Graves said. "We know that screening, testing, sanitation, utilization of [personal protective equipment] and social distancing where possible will continue to be part of our daily lives."
Afterward, Hutchinson said it had been the first in-person meeting of his Cabinet since the pandemic started.
It was held in an auditorium named for Richard Richardson, a former nose guard for the Razorbacks who worked as a substance abuse counselor for the Corrections Department's Division of Community Correction.
In April, at age 60, he became the first state employee to die of the virus.
While infections among college students were seen as a driver of the state's growth in cases in late August and early September, the increase Thursday was more pronounced among Arkansans age 65 and older.
They make up about 17% of the state's population, but accounted for 333, or 26%, of the cases added to the state's tallies Thursday.
Arkansans age 18-24, who make up about 10% of the state's population, accounted for 134 cases, or about 11% of the increase.
Since the start of the pandemic, 13% of the state's cases have been among Arkansans age 65 and older, while 16% have been among those age 18-24.
At St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, mass testing of employees that began Oct. 2 had identified 133 with the virus as of Thursday, up from 112 a day earlier, hospital spokesman Mitchell Nail said.
The testing of more than 2,000 employees involved in direct patient care was expected to be wrapped up this morning, he said.
He said the testing was prompted by a suspected covid-19 cluster of 19 cases among employees who worked on the same floor of the hospital, as well as five support staff members who tested positive.
Ten to 15 patients the employees had worked with were also tested, Nail said. He said "the vast majority" of those were negative, although he didn't have further details.
The hospital's biggest concern initially was "widespread patient transmission of the disease, which we were able to quickly determine was not the case," Nail said. "So from that point we directed our energies to making sure that employee situation was under control."
He said the hospital has been testing all patients who enter the hospital "for weeks now." The risk of a patient catching the virus from an employee is low, he said.
"When you factor in the screening, the universal masking, the social distancing, the hygiene, the sanitation that we've been doing, I honestly, from my perspective, I would be more anxious about going into a retailer," he said.
He said the hospital hasn't determined how the virus spread among the initial group of employees.
"There may have been a situation where they were eating together, or who knows?" he said. "It could have been a scenario like that."
The mass testing has been well-received by employees, although some have had to work long shifts to fill in for those who are isolating because of their infections, he said.
"We feel OK in that, but if you stretched our system, as well as some of the other systems, any harder, it might become a real difficulty," he said.
Health Department reports listed the Jonesboro Human Development Center as having 36 cases among residents as of Wednesday, up from five Monday.
But Melissa Stone, director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities Services, said the center has only had one recent case among residents. That person tested positive Wednesday, she said.
An additional 37 residents tested positive earlier but have since recovered, she said.
The center has also had 36 cases among staff members, including 26 that were active as of Thursday.
Steve Farmer, the center's superintendent, died of the virus Tuesday.
Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said it appeared some older cases were added to the department's report Wednesday.
"Generally speaking, lags and delays in reporting are possible," Lesnick said in an email.
Among the state's other four centers for people with severe developmental disabilities, the Conway Human Development Center had the largest number of active cases among residents.
A total of 185 residents at the center have tested positive, including 43 whose infections were active as of Thursday, Stone said.
The virus has also struck 125 staff members at the center, including 15 infections that were still active.
Circuit Judge H.G. Foster of Conway cited his own covid-19 diagnosis in orders Thursday postponing proceedings that had been set for Tuesday.
"WHEREUPON, Court was being held in Searcy County, Arkansas on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 and whereupon the Judge became ill and was tested for the Covid 19 virus and tested positive, it became necessary to continue the following cases from Tuesday, October 13, 2020 to Monday, November 9, 2020," Foster said in the orders.
The Arkansas Times blog reported that he had been sick, but working remotely.
"I am so sorry, but honestly I wore myself out talking today and really need to call it a night, and for real, I'm not doing anything the other judges aren't doing too, there just isn't much fanfare when folks are doing their jobs," Foster, whose 20th Judicial Circuit covers Faulkner, Searcy and Van Buren counties, said in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"Thank you, though, and unsolicited advice......try to avoid catching this thing. Turns out its even less fun than you would think!"
Three schools in the Greenwood School District and Carlisle High School, and a charter school in Bentonville were among the latest to shift to all virtual instruction in response to virus cases.
"COVID-19 positive cases in Sebastian County continue to increase, which in turn has started to filter into the school setting," the Greenwood School District said in a Facebook post Wednesday.
"The district will use this time to thoroughly clean the buildings and allow time for staff quarantines to expire."
In-person instruction at Greenwood High School, Greenwood Freshman Center and Greenwood Junior High School was set to resume Monday.
Carlisle High School announced Thursday in a social media post a "digital day" to finish the week because of "the number of students and staff that have been quarantined." Three positive covid-19 cases within the school's faculty and staff have been identified, the post stated.
Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy in Bentonville announced Wednesday that all students in kindergarten-through-eighth grade will pivot to remote learning for the next two weeks because of a case of covid-19 on campus. Classrooms are set to open Oct. 22.
A shift also began Thursday affecting a single classroom at East End Elementary in the Sheridan School District, spokeswoman Lauren Goins said. Students will return on-site Oct. 22, Goins said. Among all of the district's approximately 4,200 students, 167 were in quarantine as of Thursday, and six student cases of covid-19 were considered active, according to data published on the district's website.
Meanwhile, the Bentonville School District's central office will be closed for the next two weeks after an outbreak of covid-19 in the building.
Eleven of the building's 40 staff members reported testing positive for covid-19 within the past two weeks, according to Leslee Wright, the district's communications director. In-person instruction continues to be offered at all of the district's schools, Wright said.
Statewide, active covid-19 cases increased to 828 in public school districts as of Thursday, up nearly 11% compared with Monday's 747 total, Health Department reports.
But with decreasing numbers of covid-19 cases identified on college campuses, the top administrator at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville announced Thursday that students would have a Thanksgiving break and return to campus for classes to close out the fall semester.
Twenty public school districts had 10 or more active cases, topped by the Little Rock School District with 35, according to a Health Department report released Thursday.
The department's previous report, published Monday, listed 16 school districts with 10 or more active cases.
Active cases also increased in the state's private schools, rising to 57 from 39.
Active covid-19 cases tied to the state's colleges dipped to 369, down from 384 reported Monday, according to the state Department of Health's Thursday report.
UA-Fayetteville topped the list with 58 active cases, down from 68 listed in Monday's report.
Individual campuses have reported different totals than are in the statewide report, however, and UA's most recent update on its website listed 33 active cases. The state's largest university in early September had more than 900 cases considered active, according to Health Department data.
UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz in a campus-wide message described how those totals affected the Thanksgiving decision.
"In light of our continuing decline in the number of positive COVID-19 cases (now at 33), we have decided to stay the course following Thanksgiving break. We had been preparing to go completely remote after the Thanksgiving break if needed, but it now appears that we can continue to hold in-person classes safely as we have been doing," Steinmetz said.
Remote instruction is the method used for a majority of UA's classes, but other classes are meeting in person. Steinmetz, in the message to campus, said students with health concerns "are encouraged to discuss remote options with their instructor."
Some other universities in the state, including the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and the University of Central Arkansas, are having students leave campus for their Thanksgiving break and then continue remotely, with final exams to take place online.
Second to UA in the number of active cases was Harding University, according to the Health Department report. The private Christian university in Searcy had 55 active cases, up from 43 Monday.
Harding University, which this fall enrolled 4,544 students, according to preliminary state data, reported a higher case count as of Thursday on its website, listing 77 active student cases and 12 active employee cases.
Harding Academy in Searcy, a private school affiliated with the university and located on its campus, had 12 active cases, according to the Health Department's report. Harding Academy offers instruction from pre-kindergarten through high school, according to its website.
The state's count of virus deaths increased by four each in Pulaski and Boone counties, two each in Cleburne and Sebastian counties and one each in Arkansas, Ashley, Baxter, Clay, Cross, Lafayette, Lincoln, Montgomery, Nevada and Washington counties. One death was subtracted from the count of deaths in Jefferson County, lowering it to 87.
All of the deaths added to the state's count Thursday were of Arkansans age 65 or older, bringing the death toll among that age group to 1,125.
Among nursing home residents, the state's count of virus deaths increased by 14, to 521.
Information for this article was contributed by Dave Perozek of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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