At-Home COVID-19 Tests Arrive in Arkansas Amid Unprecedented Case Surge

The free kits will be limited to one kit per person each day.

blue gloved hand holding a BinaxNow COVID-19 rapid test with a single pink line indicating a negative test

Arkansans can now access free at-home COVID-19 testing kits at distribution sites around the state. Governor Asa Hutchinson directed the Arkansas Department of Health in December to acquire 1.5 million rapid tests and the first shipment included 211,000 kits. An additional 393,000 are en route and could arrive as early as this evening. 

Distribution will be limited to one kit — which contains two tests — per person per day, or three kits per family per day. ADH has published a map of where kits are available throughout Arkansas. The tests cost around $10 million and will be covered by existing funds available in the COVID response budget. 

If you test positive for COVID-19, it’s important to follow CDC recommendations for quarantine, Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said. Removing yourself from the community will help prevent further spread of the virus. Anyone going into public spaces, including those who’ve been vaccinated, should be using a mask at this time, he added.

“The virus is here, it’s going to spread within the state,” Romero said. “We’re trying to keep it from overwhelming our health care systems, that is the biggest issue. We know how to do that…by vaccination, by wearing masks, by social distancing.” 

The rapid tests arrive as active cases set a new record for the eighth day in a row. ADH reported 64,735 active cases today, that’s more than double the number reported a week ago. An additional 80 Arkansans have been hospitalized in the last day, bringing that total to 1,148. 

Hospitalizations have been on a steady climb with 523 people hospitalized since the start of the new year. Gov. Hutchinson is preparing for that number to continue increasing and has requested $50 million be distributed to hospitals to fund extra beds. 

The Arkansas American Rescue Plan Act Steering Committee approved the funds, but funding disbursement requires approval from lawmakers. The governor created the committee in 2020 to make recommendations on the distribution of approximately $1.57 billion of federal funding. 

The proposed plan includes adding 98 COVID ICU beds and 167 COVID medical beds to be funded for 28 to 45 days based on ADH recommendations. Hospitals that would receive those beds are Arkansas Children’s, Baptist Health’s Conway and Van Buren centers, Conway Regional, Mercy’s Rogers and Fort Smith centers, St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, CHI St. Vincent’s Little Rock and Hot Springs centers, Unity Health – White County in Searcy and Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville. 

“That should assure us of having space into the next week or so in terms of hospital capacity and we will take action as needed beyond that,” Hutchinson said during a press conference this afternoon. 

Schools are also struggling to operate as normal with the surge in cases. Philander Smith College is starting the spring semester with remote learning Wednesday. Some public school districts like the Hope School District have also embraced virtual instruction.

To provide some relief to overwhelmed staff with their contact tracing efforts, Education Secretary Johnny Key announced that for now, probable close contacts do not have to be reported to ADH. Additionally, any district with a universal mask requirement in place can forgo identifying probable close contacts with the exception of settings of high transmissibility like athletic activities where people are unmasked and in close proximity.

“We believe this will provide immediate relief to those districts that are encountering just an overwhelming number of reporting burdens and tracing burdens right now,” Key said. 

The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement Monday announced a record 226 Arkansas public school districts (97 percent) have COVID-19 infections rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 district residents during a 14-day period. 

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.