Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that he had authorized more than 60 members of the Arkansas National Guard to help speed up coronavirus testing as the state's count of cases rose by more than 6,500, blowing past the record set less than a week earlier for the most new cases in a single day.
"I'm looking at this as a January of challenge, a January of action, a January of getting this behind us, because I do believe the omicron is going to pass through quickly, but we have to deal with it as it goes through, and testing is a big part of that," Hutchinson said.
Continuing a surge blamed on the omicron variant, the state's count of cases rose Tuesday by 6,562.
Previously, the biggest one-day increase had been a spike of 4,978 cases on Thursday.
While infections from the variant have tended to cause severe illness less often than the delta variant that it supplanted, hospitalizations have also begun rising steeply, and the number of deaths reported each day has been trending upward.
On Tuesday, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by 53, to 775, its highest level since Sept. 28.
The death toll, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 27, to 9,248.
Twelve members of the guard's 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, based at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, were working Tuesday at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' drive-thru testing site in Little Rock.
Chancellor Cam Patterson said in an email to employees that the additional help allowed UAMS to expand the hours at the site to 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., seven days a week.
Hutchinson said 50 more Guard members would be assigned to help at other testing sites around the state.
State officials were working with the Arkansas Hospital Association to decide where those members will go, he said.
"Whenever there's an hour wait, whenever the staff is worn out, whenever there's people that go and they go back home because the line is too long -- now is the time to increase that testing capacity and the speed of it, and that's why we're putting the National Guard out there now," Hutchinson said.
This week and last week, Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock has reported seeing record numbers of people at its drive-thru testing site.
Bo Ryall, the hospital association's CEO, said demand is also high in northwestern and northeastern Arkansas.
"The number of cases are very high and people have known exposures -- they've been around people either over the holidays or New Year's -- and so they either are checking to see because they've been exposed or they have symptoms," Ryall said.
In another move aimed at increasing access to testing, Hutchinson last week announced that the state had purchased 1.5 million iHealth home covid-19 tests that will be distributed for free at Department of Health local health units, public libraries and other locations.
Health Secretary Jose Romero said Tuesday that the tests are expected to arrive in the state within the next week.
In addition to the record number of new cases, Arkansas' average number of new cases each day over a rolling-seven day period, its active case total and the percentage of tests that were positive over seven days all set records on Tuesday.
The daily average for new cases rose to 3,904, surpassing the previous record of 3,086 cases a day for the week ending Jan. 10.
With new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the active case total rose by 5,118, to 32,280, marking the first time it had been above 30,000 since the first case of the pandemic was identified in 2020.
Previously, the record for active cases was 27,822 on Jan. 9.
The percentage of tests that were positive over a rolling seven-day period, at record levels for the past several days, rose to 25.5%.
Before the current surge, the record was 19% for the week ending Jan. 1, 2020.
"This tells us that we are entering a period of probably the greatest risk and the greatest challenge that we've faced during the pandemic," Hutchinson said at his weekly news conference at the state Capitol after announcing the record numbers.
Although the number of people hospitalized with the virus was still just over half the level it reached during the state's summer surge, Hutchinson said he's preparing to take steps to increase hospital capacity if it becomes necessary.
He said he didn't see a need to reinstate the public health emergency that expired in September or impose vaccine or mask mandates.
"We're just beyond a statewide government mandate," Hutchinson said.
He said he has consistently supported allowing, but not requiring, businesses to impose vaccine mandates for their employees.
With students returning to classrooms this week after the holiday break, he said, school districts should "affirmatively look at whether a mask requirement is needed" based on factors such as vaccination rates and the level of virus transmission in the community.
Romero, who urged parents to get their children vaccinated, said he remained particularly concerned about the potential for Arkansas Children's Hospital and Arkansas Children's Northwest to become overwhelmed by an influx of patients.
Spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said the Little Rock and Springdale hospitals had a total of 11 virus patients on Tuesday, including one who was in intensive care and on a ventilator.
"While we are diligently monitoring trends and considering modifications to be proactive, we have not had to make adjustments for capacity yet," DeMillo said in an email.
Statewide, the number of Arkansas' virus patients who were on ventilators rose Tuesday by three, to 118, its highest level since Oct. 23.
Already at its highest level since Oct. 15, the number who were in intensive care also rose by three, to 249.
UAMS Medical Center had 49 covid-19 patients on Tuesday, including four in intensive care, two on ventilators and one who was on a heart-lung bypass machine, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
Nineteen of the 49 patients had been vaccinated, she said.
In addition, Taylor said 387 of UAMS' 11,000 employees were off work because of covid-19 concerns. That included 163 who had tested positive and others who were waiting on test results or in quarantine after being near an infected person.
Citing staff shortages caused by infections and quarantines, Patterson said in the email to employees that the hospital had reduced its visiting hours and the number of visitors the patients are allowed.
The university has also shifted classroom instruction to remote learning through at least Jan. 18, although hands-on training will continue to take place in-person, Patterson said.
He said meetings should be held online rather than in person, and no in-person events will be allowed on campus in January.
He said the UAMS fitness center and hospital and cancer institute gift shops have been closed. Tables and chairs were being removed from eateries "to encourage everyone to take their food back to their desks to eat," he said.
"We will be re-evaluating the measures mentioned above in coming weeks and my hope is that we will be able to lift them very soon," Patterson said in the email.
"In the meantime, please continue to practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings and wear your masks. Your health and safety are important to the health and safety of our entire state."
Virus concerns prompted the North Little School District to hold classes remotely for seventh- and eighth-grade students on Tuesday, the first day of class after the holiday break, and today.
"District administrators will continue to monitor system-wide COVID-19 data on a daily basis and will determine when students can safely return to campus," Superintendent Greg Pilewski wrote in a message to parents on Monday.
He said allowances will be made for those families who need to send children to school.
"While we strongly encourage students to engage in classes at home, we understand that some families may elect to send their students to campus in the event there is no childcare at home, a lack of internet access, or there is a need for specialized services, Pilewski said. "Transportation and meal services will be provided."
He urged students and staff members who haven't already been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.
In an email to parents and staff members, Little Rock Central High School Principal Nancy Rousseau said 36 students and at least 17 employees, including three administrators, had tested positive, and two more employees were sick and awaiting test results.
She said the boys' basketball game against North Little Rock High School, set for Tuesday night, would be rescheduled due to the large number of cases in the state. The schools also canceled the girls' basketball game.
"Who would have thought that almost two years after we started this COVID journey that we would still be struggling. This virus is very contagious," Rousseau wrote.
She urged parents to talk to their children about the importance of wearing masks and to get their children fully vaccinated against covid-19.
She also asked that those who feel ill remain at home.
"We will be giving our students their second semester schedules [today]," Rousseau said. "In the event that we have to switch to [remote instruction] at any point, teachers ... will make sure that our students have a Chromebook and are able to connect to Schoology for their lessons. We hope that this will not be the case, but we want to be proactive nevertheless."
Both the North Little Rock and Little Rock school districts have requirements for students and employees to wear masks.
During the first semester of the 2021-22 school year, school districts statewide reported a total of 54 shifts to virtual instruction in response to virus cases or for other reasons, Education Secretary Johnny Key said.
That compares with 411 such shifts that were reported by the same time last school year, he said.
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had 1,332 new cases on Tuesday, the most ever reported in a single county in the state in one day.
Washington County had the next-highest number of new cases on Tuesday, 472, followed by Craighead County with 439.
Until Thursday, when Pulaski County had 1,158 new cases, no county had had more than 1,000 new cases in a single day.
The only other day when a county had more than 1,000 new cases was Saturday, when Pulaski County had 1,107.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose Tuesday to 581,134.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said 19 of the deaths reported Tuesday happened within the past month.
Of the others, one happened in July, and seven were in August, she said.
Reflecting the omicron variant's ability to evade the protection afforded by vaccines, 38.8% of the state's active cases as of Tuesday were among people who had been fully vaccinated, up from 32.8% a week earlier and 24% in early December.
Health officials say the vaccines remain effective at preventing severe illness, although booster shots are recommended to reduce the chance of infection.
Since Feb. 1, 86.6% of the state's hospitalizations from covid-19 and 84.8% of its deaths from the virus have been among people who were not fully vaccinated, according to the Health Department's online coronavirus dashboard.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in Arkansas with covid-19 grew Tuesday by 204, to 29,807.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by 17, to 3,140.
After trending downward throughout most of December, the pace of vaccinations in the state has picked up slightly in recent days.
The Health Department's tally of doses that had been administered rose Tuesday by 9,400, an increase that was larger by more than 300 than the one a week earlier.
Booster shots made up about 44% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 3,285, which was larger by more than 150 than the increase in first doses the previous Tuesday.
The average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose Tuesday to 6,739, which was down slightly from the average a week earlier.
The average for first doses rose to 2,236.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 63% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Tuesday, and 51.4% had been fully vaccinated.
Of those who were fully vaccinated, 31.1% had received a booster dose.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas ranked 37th in the percentage of its population who had received at least one dose and 45th -- ahead of only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho -- in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 73.8% of people had received at least one dose, and 62.2% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 34.7% had received a booster dose.
Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.