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— Andy Davis,

Rachel Herzog

and Jaime Adame

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The number of coronavirus patients hospitalized in Arkansas on Wednesday reached a new high for the second day in a row as the state’s count of virus cases rose by 809.

The death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, rose by 13, to 1,482.

Wednesday was the second day in a row that the number of cases added to the state’s tallies was bigger than the day before.

The increase was the largest since Friday, when 958 cases were added.

“There seems to be a pattern of increased cases toward the latter part of the week as so many go in for testing after a weekend,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement.

“If the trend holds, cases may go up again toward the end of the week and then decline from there. Regardless, we are hoping to keep the peak this week lower than last week. Everyone do your part.”

The state reported that 538 covid-19 patients were in hospitals as of Wednesday.

That was up from 529 on Tuesday, when the number rose above the state’s previous record of 526 patients who were hospitalized as of Aug. 4.

Five other states — Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming — also set records for coronavirus hospitalizations Tuesday, The Washington Post reported.

The number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas who were on ventilators as of Wednesday fell by one, to 98.

That drop came even as the number who have ever been on ventilators rose by 14, to 715.

The number of patients in the state who have ever been hospitalized because of the virus rose by 82, to 5,740.

State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said the rise in hospitalizations followed a spike in cases sparked by gatherings over Labor Day weekend.

Despite the uptick in cases Wednesday, she said the spread of the virus seems to be slowing, which she’s hoping will eventually lead to a reduction in the number of patients in the hospital.

But she said she’s worried that the virus could begin spreading more quickly again as the weather gets colder and more activities move indoors, where the risk of transmission is higher.

“I would encourage people to, if they’re going to have some sort of a gathering, that they limit it to less than 10 people and that they practice social distancing and wearing cloth face coverings indoors,” she said.

For instance, she said, when her son gets married Saturday in Maryland, just a handful of people will be there. She’ll be watching it live-stream.

“We’re going to have a big reception and party next October, but the actual wedding will be a small affair,” Dillaha said. “I’m just so thrilled that I can attend, at least remotely.”

She also urged Arkansans to get flu shots as soon as possible to keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with covid-19 and flu patients this winter.

“It takes a couple of weeks for the immune system to respond with the type of protective immunity that’s intended, so it’s not too soon to get the flu vaccine,” Dillaha said.

“We want people to be protected, certainly, by the end of October.”

ACTIVE CASES FALL

The cases added to Arkansas’ tallies Wednesday included 684 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.

The other 125 were “probable” cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.

All 13 of the deaths that were added to the state’s count were among confirmed cases.

That, along with the reclassification of three deaths that had been counted as being among probable cases, raised the death toll among confirmed cases to 1,337.

In addition to cases identified through antigen tests, probable cases include those where no test was performed but covid-19 was listed on a death certificate as a contributing or underlying cause of death.

A death initially listed as that of a probable case is reclassified when a PCR test comes back positive after the death.

The reclassifications Wednesday lowered the state’s count of deaths among probable cases to 145.

Arkansas’ cumulative case count rose to 88,880. That comprised 84,914 confirmed cases and 3,966 probable ones.

The number of confirmed or probable cases that were considered active fell by 22, to 6,686, as 818 Arkansans were newly listed as having recovered.

Over a rolling seven-day period, the average number of confirmed and probable cases added to the state’s tallies each day fell by 19, to 740.

Despite the different classifications, the Health Department has said it treats confirmed and probable cases the same for the purposes of its contact-tracing efforts.

That includes requiring people whose results are positive from either type of test to isolate themselves and those they may have infected to quarantine.

HOSPITAL CLUSTER

At St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, mass testing of more than 2,000 employees involved in direct patient care had identified 112 with the virus as of Wednesday, spokesman Mitchell Nail said.

He said the tests began Friday in response to the level of transmission in the region, as well as “a cluster of employees who exhibited symptoms and tested positive.”

“When you combine those two factors, we realize that we need to be proactive in this situation and do some wide-scale testing on this,” he said.

He added that the hospital consulted with the Health Department, which “made the same recommendations.”

All employees involved in direct patient care will be tested by today, he said.

Each is being given a rapid test that returns results in 15 minutes, as well as a more accurate laboratory test with a one- to two-day turnaround time.

Although employees and visitors entering the hospital are screened for fever and other symptoms, Nail said most of the employees who have tested positive have been asymptomatic.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences hasn’t conducted mass testing of its employees but does screen everyone who goes on campus for fever and other symptoms, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.

Of the university’s more than 13,900 employees and students across the state, 258 have tested positive since the start of the pandemic, she said.

Of those, 39 were exposed to the virus while working, including seven infections that happened at non-UAMS facilities.

One employee, who was not involved in patient care, died of the virus in August, she said.

As of Wednesday, 177 employees and students were in isolation after testing positive or in quarantine after exposure to an infected person.

At Little Rock-based Baptist Health, “we have had 406 employees test positive for COVID and the majority of those cases were community acquired,” spokeswoman Cara Wade said in an email.

She said employee testing is “directed by our infectious diseases physicians and our strategy is to do focused testing of employees.”

“Sometimes that might mean testing an entire department depending on the situation,” she said.

The health system, which has 11,000 employees in Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, screens employees daily for covid-19 risk factors, she said.

INSTRUCTIONAL SHIFTS

Virus cases prompted at least two school districts in the state to announce shifts to online instruction this week for most or all of their classes.

The Forrest City School District said Friday that its classes would be virtual all of this week, although prekindergarten programs at ABC Preschool and Central Elementary School are open.

Five Forrest City teachers, 10 support staff members and 20 students were quarantined as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the state Department of Education.

“The safety of our students and staff has always been paramount for the Forrest City School District,” Assistant Superintendent Zrano Bowles said in a news release.

“In light of the number of individuals that have had to enter quarantine over the past several weeks, we felt that a week of virtual classes would allow those individuals to fully recover or be cleared from quarantine and return to school the week of Oct. 12,”

The Armorel School District will go virtual starting today as a result of multiple covid-19 cases and several more people with symptoms, according to a Wednesday social media post.

The cases affect high school and elementary students and staff members, according to the post from Superintendent Tiffany Morgan.

The rural district, which has 420 students total, saw four new cases and was waiting on six more test results Wednesday, said Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education’s Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Two teachers, three support staff members and 56 students were quarantined.

The district said it had a major outbreak from an outside source, according to a report it gave to the Education Department.

In-person classes were set to resume Oct. 19.

In addition, Clarendon Elementary School announced via Facebook on Tuesday that the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school would transition to virtual learning through Oct. 16 because of positive cases of covid-19.

“During this time of virtual instruction, the elementary school will be more thoroughly sanitized while children are out,” the post said.

Both of the school’s fourth-grade classes were advised to quarantine, the school said.

The school had two new covid-19 cases as of Wednesday afternoon, and two teachers, five support staff members and 40 students were quarantined, Mundell said.

Hutchinson and Education Secretary Johnny Key have said they expect schools to be open for in-person instruction every day when classes are normally held, although the schools can also offer online options and shift to virtual instruction in response to virus cases.

In its daily covid-19 update, the Little Rock School District reported three new coronavirus cases among students at Central High School, which is holding all of its classes online this week after several other students tested positive.

One employee at the school also tested positive in the 24-hour period ending at 3 p.m. Wednesday, the district reported.

During that period, one student at the Rockefeller Early Childhood Center and one employee at Watson Elementary School also tested positive.

An additional 11 students and one employee at Watson were quarantined after exposure to someone with the virus, as was one student at the early childhood site and three students and one employee at other schools.

COLLEGE CASES

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville on Wednesday reported six new active cases of covid-19 identified since its previous update Monday.

Totals reported by individual campuses have differed from state Department of Health data, but UA reported on its website having 33 active cases, the same as it reported Monday.

The total of 33 active cases is the lowest reported by UA going back to when fall semester classes began Aug. 24. However, the state Department of Health’s educational institutions report on Monday listed UA with 68 active cases, the most of any college in the state, though well below active case highs for the campus that topped 900 in early September.

Second to UA in Monday’s statewide report was Harding University, which on Wednesday reported its active covid-19 cases increasing to 78, up from 60 active cases a day earlier.

The total included 67 student and 11 employee active cases.

Harding University, in Searcy, has curtailed large non-instructional gatherings and this week slashed capacity limits to 25% from 50% for common areas and dining facilities.

“The [case] numbers may increase for a few days before we see an effect of our most recent actions and reminders, but we hope to see a decrease soon,” Harding University spokeswoman Jana Rucker said in an email.

The private Christian university enrolled 4,544 students this fall, according to preliminary data from the state Division of Higher Education.

The University of Oklahoma and the University of Mississippi are among large universities in nearby states that announced this week the cancellation of a traditional spring break, citing concerns related to the pandemic if students travel.

UA spokesman Mark Rushing said Wednesday that no decision has been made about the university’s plans for the spring semester.

Arkansas State University, the state’s second-largest university, is making plans for the spring semester that at least for now include a spring break, a spokesman said.

“Our Return to Learn committees at A-State that assembled the plan for this fall are currently engaged in planning the spring. At this time, we are not planning to alter the spring calendar, including spring break,” ASU spokesman Bill Smith said in an email.

PRISON OUTBREAKS

The state’s count of confirmed or probable cases rose by 72 in Craighead County, 70 in Pulaski County, 42 in Washington County, 34 in Hot Spring County, 33 in Sebastian County, 32 in Jefferson County, 31 in Benton County and 30 in Faulkner County.

Among prison and jail inmates the state’s count of cases rose by 63.

Such increases can reflect new cases or ones that were added earlier but not immediately classified as coming from a jail or prison.

Cases among inmates are also sometimes added several days after a test is conducted, after information from laboratory reports is entered into a state database.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said the number of cases among inmates rose Wednesday by 26, to 55, at the Omega Supervision Sanction Center in Malvern; by 21, to 199, at the Maximum Security Unit in Jefferson County; and by 20, to 105, at the North Central Unit in Calico Rock.

Of those three lockups, the Maximum Security Unit had the highest number of active cases among inmates, 61, followed by the Omega center, which had 32, and the North Central Unit, which had 29.

The state’s count of virus deaths rose Wednesday by two each in Pulaski and Independence counties, and by one each in Benton, Carroll, Craighead, Garland, Jefferson, Sebastian, Sharp, St. Francis and Washington counties.

One of the virus deaths added to the state’s total was the state’s third of a person age 18-24.

The death toll rose by two, to 96, among Arkansans age 45-54, and by 10, to 1,104 among those 65 or older.

Among nursing home residents, the state’s count of cases rose by four, to 507.

WHITE HOUSE REPORT

According to a report from the White House coronavirus task force, Arkansas added 5,831 cases to its tallies in the week that ended Friday, down slightly from the 5,866 it added a week earlier.

The cases last week translated to a rate of 193 per 100,000 residents — the ninth-highest rate in the country.

The state’s growth in cases per capita was the country’s seventh-highest the previous week and the fourth-highest the week before that.

The latest report, dated Sunday, continued to list Arkansas as being in the “red zone” for cases, meaning it had 101 or more new cases per 100,000 residents last week.

It also continued to list Arkansas as being in the “yellow zone” for its percentage of tests that were positive.

That number fell from 6.9% during the week that ended Sept. 23 to 6.2% during the week that ended Sept. 30.

States were considered to be in the yellow zone for that measure if 5%-7.9% of their tests were positive and in the “orange zone” if 8%-10% of their tests were positive.

The report also listed 13 of the Arkansas’ counties as being in the red zone, meaning that they had 101 or more new cases per 100,000 residents last week and that 10.1% or more of their tests were positive.

That was down from the 21 counties that were listed as being in the red zone the previous week.

“Continue to see impressive declines in key areas in Arkansas,” the latest report said. “These gains are fragile and quickly identifying positive cases with support for isolation will drive cases lower.”

Among other measures, the report recommended routine testing of K-12 teachers, first responders and staff members at nursing homes, prisons and other congregate settings.

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