Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases jumped by more than 8,400 Friday, setting a record for a single-day increase for the fourth day in a row and pushing the state's cumulative count of cases since the start of the pandemic to more than 600,000.
Rising by double-digits for the eighth-straight day, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew Friday by 41, to 933, its highest level since Sept. 23.
Arkansas' death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 20, to 9,298.
In a tweet, Gov. Asa Hutchinson referred to the number of cases that were considered active, a total that topped 50,000 for the first time as new cases continued to outpace recoveries and deaths.
"With record highs in new and active cases, we see just how quickly Omicron spreads," Hutchinson said.
"While it's less severe, the high number of infections adds to our hospitalization numbers. Let's support one another to meet the challenge January brings."
The Arkansas National Guard announced that 14 of its medics will be mobilized next week to help the Health Department with testing at seven health units around the state.
Meanwhile, the first 450,000 of the 1.5 million rapid home tests purchased by the state last week did not arrive as expected Friday, but state officials hoped they would arrive today, Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said.
"It's kind of a fluid situation," Dillaha said.
She said the department, with the help of the National Guard, still planned to begin distributing the tests around the state Monday. They should be available to the public by early next week, she said.
Hutchinson has said the tests will be available for free to the public at local health units, public libraries and other locations.
He said Thursday that all 1.5 million tests were expected to arrive by the end of next week, although he cautioned that delivery dates could shift because of shipping congestion and other factors.
The 8,434 cases added to the state's count Friday followed record-setting jumps of 6,562 cases Tuesday, 7,488 Wednesday and 7,787 Thursday.
Before this week, the biggest increase since the start of the pandemic was a spike of 4,978 cases last week, on Dec. 30.
The next-highest, one-day increase was on Jan. 1, 2021, when the count rose by 4,304.
At a record level since Sunday, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose Friday to 5,480.
The active case total reached an all-time high for the fourth day in a row as it rose by 6,541, to 50,710.
The percentage of the state's coronavirus tests that were positive over a rolling seven-day period also continued to reach new heights, rising to 28.4% for the week ending Thursday.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%, but it has been above that level since the week ending Dec. 22.
After falling slightly a day earlier, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators rose by eight, to 135, its highest level since Oct. 15.
Growing for the ninth-straight day, the number who were in intensive care, already at its highest level since Oct. 7, rose by 11, to 279.
The number of the state's intensive care unit beds that were unoccupied fell by one, to 45.
People with covid-19 made up almost 26% of the state's patients in intensive care on Friday, up slightly from about 25% a day earlier.
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's Hospital had 19 covid-19 patients Friday, including four who were in intensive care and one who was on a ventilator, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
None of the patients had been vaccinated, even though more than half were age 5 or older, making them eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
"We are seeing more sick children, especially in our emergency department and among kids admitted for other reasons, but less severe illness than we saw during the delta wave last summer," DeMillo said in an email.
"That being said, we still have patients who are on ICU and need mechanical ventilation to help them breathe."
The 14 medics from the Guard's Arkansas Medical Detachment and 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team will report Tuesday to local health units in Clarksville, Conway, El Dorado, Forrest City, Lake Village, Magnolia and Star City.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said the Guard members will help with testing and vaccinations.
"Currently, demand is overwhelming available staff," McNeill said in an email.
"We are hopeful this will allow more access to testing and vaccinations as well as to regular [local health unit] services."
Those Guard members are in addition to 40 who are scheduled to report next week to hospitals and other health care providers in Little Rock, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Mountain Home, Pine Bluff and Rogers to help speed up coronavirus testing and free up health care workers to provide other types of care.
An additional 12 Guard members began working this week at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' drive-thru testing clinic in Little Rock.
Just days into the second semester of the 2021-22 school year, school districts had already reported 25 closings or shifts to virtual instruction in response to covid-19 cases and quarantines, said Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.
By contrast, during the entire first semester, 40 such shifts -- which can involve a classroom, school or entire district -- were reported.
The Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts, which shifted to remote learning for Thursday and Friday of this week, said Friday that they would continue with online instruction for Monday and Tuesday of next week.
Unlike last school year, when emergency rules were in place, school districts that make such shifts must use one of their 10 alternative methods of instruction days or make up the days later in the year.
In a move designed to minimize disruptions to in-person learning, the state Thursday adopted revised U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for schools for isolation and quarantine.
Mirroring revised CDC guidance for the general public, the new school guidelines shorten the time someone is required to isolate after testing positive from 10 days to as few as five.
The time someone is required to quarantine after being near an infected person was similarly shortened from seven to 10 days to at least five.
"Hopefully that will help keep schools open," Dillaha said.
"A lot of the concern has been about so many kids being out for quarantine, but our concern at this point is the number of cases that we'll have."
She noted that even after emerging from isolation or quarantine after five days, people will still need to wear masks around others at all times for an additional five days.
"That's going to be a challenge in schools because kids need to take their masks off if they're going to eat," Dillaha said. "Schools are going to have to figure out how they will handle that so kids can eat separated from others if they have completed their isolation period."
Citing the steep rise in cases in the city and statewide, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. announced that all meetings of city boards and commissions will be held virtually until further notice.
A Unity Day event, scheduled for Jan. 16 in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, will be postponed, and other events "will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis based on the perceived level of potential community transmission," the city said in a news release.
"We ask for your patience at this difficult time, which we hope is very temporary," Scott said in the release.
"The City of Little Rock is dedicated to being open, honest and transparent, and we will make every possible accommodation to public participation in conducting the public's business, while still taking measures to ensure that such participation does not endanger the health of those involved."
The UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965 on Friday renewed its call for university faculty and staff members to be able to work remotely.
The union, with about 50 members among the UA faculty and staff, also called for more emphasis on the enforcement of a campus face covering requirement.
The group, in a statement, criticized the university's plan to "stay the course" ahead of a spring semester term set to begin Jan. 18.
"Staying the course amounts to continuing the mask mandate on campus -- a mandate that faculty and staff have found nearly impossible to enforce," the group said in its statement.
Mark Rushing, a UA spokesman, said Friday that the university reviews and considers all feedback from the campus community.
The union called in August for staff and faculty members to be able to work remotely, but the university pushed forward last fall with requirements for face-to-face classes.
Interim Chancellor Charles Robinson and other UA leaders, in a message emailed Thursday to the campus community, said in-person instruction would continue in ongoing intersession courses and at the start of the spring term.
Plans are "for a semester as we ended the last," the message stated, with a masking requirement in place, and "normal operational status" for offices and departments.
"We will continue to monitor the infection rate of the campus community and the surrounding region, as well as the burden on our medical community, especially hospitalizations," the leaders said.
Some other universities, including the University of Central Arkansas, have announced plans to start their spring semesters online.
CASES TOP 600,000
The state's cumulative count of cases since the start of the pandemic rose to 604,843, a number equal to about 20% of the state's population.
The count passed the 600,000 mark three months after it rose above 500,000.
After the state's first case was diagnosed, on March 11, 2020, it took just over seven months for the number to climb to 100,000, on Oct. 20, 2020.
Reflecting the accelerating spread, the total topped 200,000 just under two months later, on Dec. 19, 2020, and 300,000 a month and a half after that, on Feb. 3.
After peaking in January, however, the state's daily case increases plummeted, then remained at relatively a low level until June, when a new surge, powered by the delta variant, began.
The state's cases passed 400,000 on Aug. 6, near the height of that surge, and 500,000 on Oct. 7. By that time, new cases were again on the decline.
The state's cases began trending upward again in November and skyrocketing early last week in a surge blamed on the omicron variant.
People can be counted as a case more than once if they are infected multiple times.
On the other hand, the actual number of Arkansans who have been infected is likely significantly larger than the official case count since not everyone who is infected gets tested, and the results of at-home tests aren't typically reported to the Health Department.
"It's kind of the tip of the iceberg right now really," Dillaha said.
In an "issue brief" released Friday, researchers with UAMS' Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health said Arkansas has enough people who are not vaccinated "to drive this third surge to unprecedented levels."
They said they expect the state to have 168,793 new cases from last Sunday through Feb. 1, with an average of 5,626 per day.
Over the same period, they predicted 2,190 Arkansans will be newly hospitalized with covid-19 and 511 will die from the virus.
"Unlike 2020, if the Arkansas surge is like Omicron surges in other countries, then this surge will peak in the next 30 days, with a sustained level of new infections continuing into February and March," the researchers wrote.
In states that were hit with omicron earlier than Arkansas, "hospital systems, including those which treat children only, are being severely challenged with increasing numbers of seriously ill patients," the researchers wrote.
In a "call to action," the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said Arkansans, especially school, municipal, business and religious leaders, should limit in-person meetings and gatherings, require masking indoors and encourage vaccinations, among other recommendations.
"The sheer number of people becoming infected is a threat to our healthcare system," the center's CEO, Dr. Joe Thompson, said in a news release.
"We expect and hope that the current surge will be short-lived, but for the next three weeks we call on Arkansans to take action to fight this highly infectious variant."
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had the most new cases Friday with 1,682, followed by Washington County with 568 and Benton County with 555.
Dillaha said 13 of the deaths reported statewide Friday happened within the past month.
Of the others, five happened in November, and two were in early December.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew Friday by 62, to 30,106.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by two, to 3,166.
The Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 10,071, an increase that was larger by more than 1,100 than the one a week earlier.
Booster shots made up 44% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 3,424, which was up by 435 compared with the increase in first doses a week earlier.
After dipping a day earlier, the average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 6,899, which was still down from an average of more than 12,000 a day in early December.
The average for first doses rose to 2,369.
According to the CDC, 63.3% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Friday, up from 63.2% a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated rose from 51.5% as of Thursday to 51.6%.
Of those who were fully vaccinated, 32% had received booster doses, up from 31.7% a day earlier.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 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, 74.1% of people had received at least one dose, and 62.4% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 35.6% had received booster doses.
Information for this article was contributed by Jaime Adame and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.