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story.lead_photo.caption This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19. - Photo by NIAID-RML via AP

Coronavirus-related hospitalizations across Arkansas have risen by 15% in the past week, prompting Gov. Asa Hutchinson to warn about the strain that record numbers of patients place on the state's hospitals.

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 654 new cases of the virus Monday, along with an increase of 32 hospitalizations. The total number of hospitalizations, 608, set a record for the second-straight day and the sixth time in seven days.

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The state's hospitals have 1,060 total ventilators, and 372 are in use. Of those, 104 were for covid-19 patients Monday, up five from the previous day.

Covid-19 patients were using 260 of the state's 1,002 intensive-care unit beds, of which 123 were available.

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A spokeswoman for the Health Department said Monday that the agency is not aware of any hospitals exceeding their bed capacity, while the governor expressed concern about the caseloads affecting hospitals in other ways.

"Our hospitalizations continue to be at a high level," Hutchinson said in a statement. "This puts stress on our healthcare workers. While we have sufficient bed capacity in our hospitals, this does strain the system. This is why we need to work together to reduce our cases and reduce our hospitalizations."

The number of active cases in the state on Monday, 7,839, was an increase of 38 from the previous day. A total of 93,487 Arkansans have either tested positive for the virus or are believed to have been infected since the first patient was identified in March.

The state recorded 17 new deaths Monday, bringing the toll to 1,586.

New cases were tallied Monday off the results from 9,089 lab-confirmed tests and 705 antigen tests.

Antigen tests -- which are quicker and less reliable than lab-confirmed results -- together with reporting of sick people who have known contact with a covid-positive person, produced 86 presumptive cases Monday.

HOSPITAL CAPACITY

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' intensive-care unit was operating at maximum level Monday with nine covid-19 patients, according to spokeswoman Leslie Taylor, who said the "max" designation meant the ICU held a small number of beds available to transfer patients from other areas of the hospital.

The hospital was caring for 29 covid-19 patients in all, and it was operating at 90% capacity, she said.

"However, because we are the state's only adult Level One Trauma Center and offer unique specialized services, we operate near capacity most of the time," Taylor said in an email. "We have a surge plan in place that will allow us to quickly increase the number of ICU beds if needed."

At Baptist Health in Little Rock, spokeswoman Cara Wade said in a statement Monday, "It is common for ICU's to run at or near capacity and it can vary from hour to hour. Currently, we do have available beds."

There were a total of 58 covid-19 patients being treated at Benton and Washington county hospitals on Monday, according to Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas spokeswoman Martine Pollard.

That number of patients was lower than the record high Northwest Arkansas reached earlier in the pandemic, and well below the two counties' hospital capacity.

Mercy Hospital has a covid-19 unit with 60 beds. Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville has two covid-19 units with a total capacity for 38 patients, and the option to open a third for a total capacity of 54, according to spokeswoman Natalie Hardin.

SCHOOL CASES

Fifty-one public school districts across the state have five or more active cases of the coronavirus, according to the latest data available from the Arkansas Department of Health.

Including districts with fewer than five cases, there were 831 active cases across the state's public school systems, according to the Health Department's Monday report. The department does not name schools with fewer than five cases to protect patient confidentiality but does include those numbers in its overall tally of active cases.

Cumulative active cases last Thursday in public schools reached 828.

Monday's numbers brought the total number of cases in schools to more than 6,000 since mid-June, the Health Department reported.

The Little Rock School District made the top of Monday's list with 43 active cases, followed by the Springdale School District with 39 and the Rogers School District with 32, according to the Health Department.

• The Little Rock district reported three new cases and 17 individuals placed under quarantine in its daily update Monday.

The district's Watson Elementary School announced Sunday on its Facebook page that it would shift to virtual-only learning this week after four staff members tested positive, resulting in the quarantine of 22 students and 10 faculty members.

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Carver Magnet Pre-K also transitioned to virtual classes through Friday and will reassess then whether students can return, according to the Little Rock district's webpage.

• One first-grade classroom at the Sheridan School District's East End Elementary School shifted to virtual learning Monday, with students returning on-site Oct. 26, according to a district spokesperson. Similarly, a fourth-grade class at Sheridan Intermediate School shifted to virtual learning and also will return Oct. 26.

The Sheridan School District has 12 active student cases, four active faculty cases, 224 students quarantined and 21 employees quarantined, according to data on its website.

• Fox Meadow School of Creative Media, part of the Nettleton School District in Jonesboro, is shifting to online-only instruction from today until Oct. 22, when students are scheduled to return to face-to-face learning. That school has 10 quarantined teachers, three quarantined support staff members and 32 quarantined students, Nettleton Superintendent Karen Curtner said.

The superintendent said the decision to shift to virtual learning hinged on an increasing number of cases in the area, not specifically within the district, and also issues in finding enough substitute teachers.

Cases "have just been trending up over the past week or so," Curtner said. "Nothing, just like boom, happened today. It has continuously been getting larger and larger."

HIGHER-ED CASES

Active covid-19 cases at colleges and universities increased for the first time in more than a month, according to a biweekly statewide report released Monday.

Case totals ticked upward to 417 from the 369 active cases listed in Thursday's Department of Health report on schools.

• Harding University in Searcy topped all colleges with 82 active cases, an increase from Thursday's 55 cases, according to Department of Health data.

But totals reported by institutions have differed from state data, and a spokeswoman for the private Christian university said the campus is seeing a dip in cases from last week.

"We are down by 11 positives today following the weekend. Projections are that it will begin to decrease this week," spokeswoman Jana Rucker said in an email.

The campus has curtailed large noninstructional gatherings, though events like movie screenings for students to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month have been allowed.

"We have curtailed unstructured social events. The movie was structured and an approved event and all participants were properly masked and distanced per state guidelines," Rucker said.

The campus on its website Monday reported 86 active covid-19 cases, with 73 active student cases and 13 active employee cases. The Searcy campus this fall has about 4,544 students, according to preliminary enrollment totals.

• The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville ranked second among all colleges with 56 active cases, according to the Health Department report. UA on its website Monday reported having 35 active cases, including 33 student cases.

UA, the state's largest university, since early September has generally seen decreasing totals for its active and newly identified covid-19 cases.

But UA reported 22 new cases identified during a three-day period that ended Sunday, causing a bump in its active cases for the first time this month, according to campus data. The new cases comprised 17 self-reported positive tests and five from on-campus testing.

• The state's second-largest university, Arkansas State University, on Monday announced that it plans for students to have a Thanksgiving break and then return for in-person instruction to complete the fall semester.

While UA has announced a similar plan, some other large schools in the state, including the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, have said that classes will switch to online-only instruction after Thanksgiving.

"We are also planning to hold our Fall 2020 Commencement ceremony in person using the COVID-19 protocols that were used in August," ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse said in a campuswide message, referring to a commencement ceremony held outdoors at Centennial Bank Stadium.

For its spring semester, ASU also plans to give students a week off for spring break, Damphousse said, though he cautioned that plans could change. The campus has seen its active cases generally decline since early September, according to state data, and Monday's Health Department report listed the Jonesboro campus as having 16 active cases.

"COVID-19 is highly contagious and we know that masking, physical distancing, sanitization, and frequent handwashing are key contributors to limit its spread. Let's not get lulled into complacency by our recent success. As we have said all semester long: if campus infections rise to a level that makes continued operations unsustainable, we will transition to all-online instruction," Damphousse said.

Information for this article was contributed by Alex Golden of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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