Arkansas Breaks Multiple COVID-19 Records

Officials are preparing to increase hospital capacity if needed.

White and blue COVID-19 self-test kit

Amidst the latest COVID-19 surge, the Arkansas Department of Health reported a record high for new cases, active cases and positivity rate today. 

During the last 24 hours, 6,562 Arkansans have tested positive for the virus, shattering the previous record of 4,978 set last Thursday. There are 32,280 active cases statewide and the state’s positivity rate for the last week is 25 percent. 

“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,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during his weekly press conference.

With the Omicron variant spurring a rapid spread of the virus, more people are seeking testing, putting a strain on medical systems. Ten members of the National Guard are providing testing assistance at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock. An additional 50 guardsmen will be deployed to help with testing statewide and that number will be increased if needed, the governor announced today.

To alleviate the testing burden for hospitals, last week Hutchinson announced the state is ordering 1.5 million at-home tests. The shipment’s arrival could take some time because of a national shortage and the governor said he hopes to have them before the end of January.

Officials are monitoring hospitalizations, which have increased by 150 in the first four days of the new year. While staffing could present a challenge, officials have a plan in place to increase hospital capacity if needed. 

“We’ve invested over $60 million over the last year in expanding space in the hospitals for ICU medical surge beds and that’s going to pay dividends in the event we have to once again increase hospital space,” Hutchinson said.

Health Secretary Dr. José Romero is concerned about hospital capacity for children. This group is particularly vulnerable because the state only has one children’s hospital in Little Rock and its one satellite campus in Springdale. 

Romero again encouraged parents to vaccinate their children. Arkansans as young as 5 are eligible for vaccines and today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that moderately or severely immunocompromised 5 to 11-year-olds receive a booster dose 28 days after their second shot. A CDC advisory group is also expected to discuss booster shots for the 12 to 15-year-old group.

“If these are authorized, please parents, take advantage of this at their appropriate time,” Romero said. “We need to decrease the possibility of children becoming symptomatic and being in the hospital.”

Students are returning to the classroom this week following the holiday break and the use of masks is essential for preventing the transmission of the virus, Romero said. Among school districts with a full mask mandate, students and staff saw a 25 percent reduction in COVID-19 case rates. 

COVID-19 outbreaks prompted 54 modifications by school districts during the 2021 fall semester. That’s a decrease from 411 during the 2020 fall semester. Education Secretary Johnny Key encouraged districts to continue mitigation tactics in an effort to keep schools running smoothly during the spring semester.

“When it comes to schools, we need to stay the course,” Key said. “We need to continue to focus on these mitigation techniques and steps and use them and stack them in a way that will help continue to have a safe learning environment for our students.” 

The governor announced last August that 500,000 high filtration masks would be shipped to schools. If there are schools that still have them in stock, Key said this would be a good time to use them. Officials will be following up with districts to make sure mask needs are being met, he said.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.