ARKANSAS -- The state's count of coronavirus cases rose Thursday by 3,549 -- the fourth-highest one-day increase since the start of the pandemic and one that came three days after the start of classes at most public elementary and secondary schools.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the increase "sadly broke any trend that was developed in the last three days where we had a downward trend in cases."
"In talking with the Department of Health, certainly some of these are coming from the schools, and we will get more information as to the numbers, but that is one of the reasons for the spike, which is not necessarily unexpected, but we were hoping that that kind of spike would not happen," Hutchinson said.
Health Department reports indicated that the number of active cases among public school students and employees grew by 450, to 1,797, from Monday to Thursday.
The number of districts with five or more active cases rose by 36, to 109.
Meanwhile, the president of the state's largest union of teachers and school support staffers issued a statement Thursday evening in "strong support" of U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona's endorsement last week of vaccine requirements for teachers and other school employees.
Arkansas Education Association President Carol Fleming called vaccinations "the best way to ensure safe and successful schools."
"Getting the vaccine is one measure we can complete to take care of ourselves and each other," Fleming said.
"As the hospitals in our state are at maximum capacity due to rising COVID cases, reducing the patient increases will allow Arkansans in need to access health care."
After falling the previous two days, the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 statewide rose Thursday by 38, to 1,410.
That was still short of the record 1,459 virus patients who were hospitalized as of Monday but larger by 39 than the number's peak in January during the state's winter surge.
The number of virus patients who were on ventilators rose by five to an all-time high of 331.
The number who were in intensive care rose by one, to 525, which was still down from the record of 553 covid-19 patients who were in intensive care as of Monday.
No Shifts Reported
At a news conference at the state Capitol, Hutchinson said information submitted by schools indicated links with some of the cases reported Thursday, but that didn't mean "that there's been an outbreak at the school."
"We're still in our first week of school, so we haven't got into a school spike yet, because it usually takes a little bit longer than that," Hutchinson said.
Deputy Education Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer said the start of the school year has been "smooth," with no schools so far reporting a shift to virtual instruction as a result of outbreaks or people having to quarantine.
"Some may say that it's been smoother than what they expected, but we really want to credit that to the fact that our schools are ready," she said.
"They've done a tremendous amount of planning, a lot of communication, and we also want to credit the cooperation that they are getting from their parents and from their community."
In particular, she said mask requirements and the vaccination of students and employees had reduced the amount of disruption caused by the virus.
Under state guidelines for schools, students and employees who come into contact with an infected person and don't have symptoms don't need to quarantine if they are fully vaccinated or if they and the infected person were both wearing masks.
Out of the state's 262 traditional school districts and charter school systems, Hutchinson said 118, covering the majority of the state's students, have mask requirements.
Of the others, 87 have chosen not to require masks, and 57 haven't taken action on the issue, he said.
The requirements became an option for schools after an order by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox on Aug. 6 halted enforcement of a state law that had prohibited most state and government entities from having such mandates.
The ruling blocked the enforcement of Act 1002 of 2021 until a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is decided.
Hutchinson noted that universities such as the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and Arkansas Tech University in Russellville have also adopted mask requirements since Fox's ruling.
"What we see is that school districts are weighing this decision very carefully," Hutchinson said.
"They're listening to people, and they're making a judgment based upon what they see as the best public health outcome for the students in their district."
He said the state has sent school districts 500,000 "high filtration masks," including 325,000 in children's sizes.
Pfeffer said the masks are enough to supply one for every student and employee.
The state has also ordered additional masks that are expected to go out as soon as next week, she said.
Hutchinson said he hasn't "had any communication" from President Joe Biden's administration about its announcement Wednesday that it will explore legal action against states that have prohibited school mask mandates.
"I think we have to be careful, whether we're state or federal government, in those type of punitive measures to push, whether it's a vaccine or to require masks," Hutchinson said. "I don't think that's good for governors or for the federal government.
"There are some exceptions to it, and I know that's what's being looked at by the Biden administration and as well as among governors, but I've not had any specific conversations with him."
Health Secretary Jose Romero said the state may be seeing "the beginning" of an increase in cases related to the return of students to classes.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people typically develop symptoms 3-5 days after being infected, although it could take as long as 14 days.
With some districts requiring masks and others, not, "you have a natural experiment," he said.
"I think that we're going to learn a lot, and that the school districts are going to learn a lot about what the impact of doing masking is in their schools," Romero said.
Regular testing of students, employees or both is another strategy schools could use.
Romero said the Health Department plans to seek approval from a legislative committee next week to use money from a $90 million grant from the CDC to hire a vendor that would offer testing to schools across the state.
Meanwhile, Pfeffer said schools are continuing to hold vaccine clinics for students and employees.
She also praised the Cabot School District for its online dashboard showing cases identified by the school and the number of people associated with each case who would have been required to quarantine if the district didn't have a mask requirement in place.
The website for the Marion School District, which started classes July 26, lists similar information.
According to Health Department reports, the total number of cases among public school students and employees since Aug. 1 rose by 1,007, to 3,134 from Monday to Thursday.
The totals as of Thursday included at least 2,084 among students and 555 among employees. Information about whether the person infected was a student or employee wasn't available for the other 495 cases.
The Bentonville School District had the most cases that were active as of Thursday, 84, up from 52 as of Monday.
The Marion district, which topped the list Monday, had the second-highest number Thursday as its active cases dropped from 74 to 63.
Four additional school districts statewide topped 50 active cases as of Thursday: Fort Smith School District, with 63; Cabot School District with 56; Rogers School District with 54; and Springdale School District with 54.
The totals increased compared with Monday for all four of the districts.
A separate report from the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement listed 200 school districts that, as of Monday, had 50 or more new coronavirus infections per 10,000 residents over the previous 14 days.
This is 85% of the 234 geographically distinct school districts included in the center's analysis.
Fifty of those 200 districts had 100 or more new coronavirus infections per 10,000 residents, according to the center's data.
The Health Department reports also list covid-19 cases at colleges and universities in the state, though many start classes next week.
UA topped all colleges with 44 active cases as of Thursday, followed by the University of Central Arkansas, with 28 active cases and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock with 20 cases.
As in the previous year, however, schools on their websites are reporting different case totals from what's listed in the Health Department report.
Arkansas Tech University on its website Thursday listed 30 active cases, while the Health Department report listed it as having 12.
For all colleges in the state, the Health Department listed 233 active cases, up from 202 Monday.
At a virtual town hall meeting for members of the Arkansas Education Association on Thursday evening, Hutchinson and Fleming, the union president, said increasing vaccinations is the key to reducing student and faculty quarantines and having a smoother school year than the last.
Fleming referred to Hutchinson's remark at his news conference earlier Thursday that 51.2% of Arkansans, according to the CDC, were at least partially vaccinated as of Wednesday. The percentage rose Thursday to 51.4%.
"We need those numbers to be higher," she said.
Hutchinson, along with Education Secretary Johnny Key, fielded questions from teachers from across the state, including about whether teachers would be able to take covid-related leave should their schools experience an outbreak or if their own children needed to be quarantined.
Key said the covid leave policy was implemented statewide last year as a result of a broader emergency order. The current emergency order is narrower in scope; however, each district is required to have a plan outlining how it will move forward safely and that plan may include covid-related leave if it's something that's needed in that area, he said.
In her statement supporting vaccine requirements, Fleming said regular testing is an option for children and adults who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
Hutchinson noted that he's taken steps to increase the state's hospital capacity.
These include allocating $37.7 million in coronavirus relief funds to open and staff 157 beds at Baptist Health properties in Little Rock, Fort Smith and Van Buren for up to 60 days, and $10.4 million for 43 beds at Unity Health-White County Medical Center in Searcy.
Veterans hospitals in Little Rock and Fayetteville have also made a total of 10 beds available to non-veterans in response to a request from the state to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"In the near future, I'm hoping that we'll be in good shape," Hutchinson said.
After dipping to as low as eight last week, he noted, the number of unoccupied intensive care unit beds statewide had increased to 23 as of Thursday.
"This is progress, and we expect more to come online," Hutchinson said.
He said the state also still has available hospital beds for children.
Baptist Health had opened 95 of the state-funded beds as of Thursday, up from 90 a day earlier, health system spokeswoman Cara Wade said.
The beds open as of Thursday comprised 50 regular beds and 12 intensive care unit beds at Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock, 21 ICU beds at Baptist Health-Fort Smith and 12 regular beds at Baptist Health-Van Buren.
"We are working to open the remaining 62 beds in Van Buren," Wade said in an email.
"The target date with the state of Arkansas is to open all beds by August 25. Our goal is to finish ahead of schedule. However, these dates could move based on availability of staffing resources."
She said the system's 11 hospitals in Arkansas had 292 covid-19 patients as of Thursday, surpassing the previous record of 288 set earlier in the week.
The patients Thursday included 72 who were being treated in the newly expanded spaces.
Out of all 292, 117 were in intensive care, and 87 were on ventilators.
She said 90% of the 292 patients were not fully vaccinated.
Unity Health was still working Thursday to hire nurses to staff the beds in Searcy, spokeswoman Brooke Pryor said.
She said earlier this week that it had offers pending and accepted that would allow it to open the first five of the 43 beds on Aug. 30.
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's had 27 covid-19 patients as of Thursday, including six who were on ventilators, a spokeswoman said.
She said none of the patients had been vaccinated even though about half were at least 12, making them eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
Hospitals in Washington and Benton counties said they had 137 patients, including covid-19 and other patients, in intensive care units Thursday.
Martine Pollard, a spokeswoman for Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers, said the number surpassed the previous all-time high of 128 from "just a few days ago."
"Our teams continue to meet the challenges of increased volumes with quality, safety, and service for all who come through our doors," Pollard said in a statement.
"But we continue to be concerned for our people who are caring for record volumes of critical care patients, including those hospitalized with COVID-19, most of which are not vaccinated. It is a concern that is very real and continues to place an extreme burden on our region's health care providers who we rely on to treat non-COVID-19-related illnesses and conditions, along with COVID-19."
Spike in Cases
Thursday's increase in cases was the largest in a single day since Jan. 6.
The largest one-day increase was a jump of 4,304 cases on Jan. 1 that was blamed in part on gatherings over Christmas.
The average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose to 2,279, which was still short of the nearly seven-month high of 2,351 it reached the week ending Aug. 7.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 429,100.
With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose to 24,787, which was still below the seven-month high of 25,735, the number reached Sunday.
According to rankings Thursday by the CDC, Arkansas continued to have the country's fourth-highest number of new cases per capita, behind Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, over a rolling seven-day period.
It also continued to have the second-highest number of new deaths per capita, after Louisiana.
Within Arkansas, Washington County had the most new cases, 466, followed by Garland County with 262, and Benton County with 243.
The number of people who had ever been hospitalized in the state with confirmed infections rose by 71, to 20,356.
The number who have ever been on ventilator with covid-19 rose by 12, to 2,069.
At 8,776, the increase in vaccine doses that providers reported having administered, including second and third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, was smaller by more than 4,300 than the one a week earlier.
The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell for the second day in a row, to 10,538.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose by 5,634, to 1,550,501.
The number who were fully vaccinated rose by 5,697, to 1,183,159, representing about 39.2% of the population.
As it moved ahead of Missouri, Arkansas ranked 37th among the states and District of Columbia on Thursday in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose.
It continued to rank 46th, ahead of Louisiana, Idaho, Wyoming, Mississippi and Alabama, in the percentage of its residents who were fully vaccinated.
Information for this article was contributed by Rachel Herzog of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.