Officials Expand Hospital Capacity as COVID-19 Hospitalizations Hit Record High

The $7.4 million project will add 124 new hospital beds in Van Buren and Little Rock.

Dr. Jose Romero speaks at a press conference Dec. 22, 2020
Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero stresses the importance of health precautions for Christmas gatherings during a weekly briefing on the pandemic Dec. 22, 2020.

The state is partnering with Baptist Health to build alternative care sites to meet a growing need for hospital beds. This comes as the Department of Health reports an additional 25 Arkansans have been hospitalized with COVID-19. That brings the total to 1,103 hospitalized patients, an all-time high. 

“Our existing capacity has been able to manage the current caseload, but with 25 more today we don’t know what the rest of December’s going to be like, we don’t know what January is going to be like because we don’t know what Christmas is going to be like,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during his weekly briefing on the pandemic yesterday.

The state may see another surge in cases after Christmas like it did following Thanksgiving so the governor said Arkansas needs to be prepared. Hutchinson is authorizing construction of an alternative care site in Van Buren and funding for extra bed space in central Arkansas.  

The project, which will add 124 beds to the state’s capacity, is expected to cost $7.4 million. Gov. Hutchinson said the hope is the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover 80 percent of the cost and the state is prepared to pay the remaining 20 percent.

“This is important because even though it’s going to take some time to build this out, we have to be ready for whatever comes in January,” Hutchinson said. “It is my hope that we will build this out and we will not have to utilize those beds for COVID patients, but it is prudent upon me as governor to make sure we have that adequate space if the need arises.”

The project to expand bed capacity is a recommendation of the COVID-19 Winter Task Force of which Baptist CEO Troy Wells is a member. As part of the new project, the J.A. Gilbreath Conference Center on Baptist Health’s Little Rock campus will be converted into 50 patient beds. The project will take 4 to 5 weeks to complete, but that work began last week, Wells said.

In Van Buren, crews will renovate a facility Baptist Health acquired in 2018. That project will take 6 to 8 weeks, but Wells said it will be done in phases so if beds are needed sooner, they’ll have some of those units up and running. The 74 beds at this facility will include 8 ICU beds. 

Additionally, Baptist Health will open up another 30 ICU beds that will be available within the next 2 to 3 weeks.

New cases and deaths have continued to climb in the weeks following Thanksgiving. With Christmas on Friday, Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero again asked Arkansans to be mindful of health precautions for the holiday season.

“I really encourage you to limit your gathering to the nuclear family and not bring individuals and avoid large crowds,” Dr. Romero said. “Use a mask even when indoors.”

Dr. Romero also reported the vaccine rollout has gone well in Arkansas. Since the first COVID-19 vaccine arrived Dec. 14, nearly 13,000 health care workers have been immunized. 

The state has received its allotment of vaccines for next week. This includes 23,400 Pfizer vaccines in addition to the second doses being shipped for health care workers who are awaiting their second shot, Gov. Hutchinson said. 

The Moderna vaccine first arrived in Arkansas Monday and those 5,900 doses are being administered in long-term care facilities. Next week’s allotment includes 17,700 doses. 

As health care workers as well as residents and staff of long-term care facilities continue to be vaccinated, Dr. Romero asked Arkansans eligible for the vaccine to consider getting immunized.

“These vaccines have been studied well. They’ve been shown to be safe and efficacious and I want you to consider receiving these vaccines sooner rather than later,” Romero said.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.