Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Wednesday by almost 7,500, setting a record for a single-day increase for the second day in a row.
Increasing by double digits for the sixth-straight day, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 jumped by 44, to 819, its highest level in more than three months.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by eight, to 9,256.
"The new high in cases is consistent with what we're seeing with Omicron across the country," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"Hospitalizations is the key statistic & it's disappointing that vaccinations are increasing only moderately. Let's make the right decision on vaccinations to support health care workers."
Meanwhile, Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said Wednesday that because of the ballooning number of cases, department contractors starting Jan. 18 will no longer conduct contact tracing, and they will limit case investigations to those involving people 18 and younger.
Such investigations, she said, involve gathering information about the person's illness, such as when the symptoms started and where the infection might have occurred, and telling the person to isolate.
"It would take so long for the contractors to ramp up, we might be on the other side of the peak by that point, so we have made the decision to focus our efforts on case investigations on people who are 18 and younger as a way to support our schools and keep them open by helping to identify kids who need to isolate and not spread the illness at school, as well as support children who are too young to be vaccinated or are not fully vaccinated yet," Dillaha said.
The 7,488 cases added Wednesday came just a day after the state's count rose by 6,562.
Before this week, the biggest increase since the start of the pandemic was a spike of 4,978 cases last Thursday.
At a record level since Sunday, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose Wednesday to 4,439.
With new cases continuing to outpace recoveries and deaths, the number of cases in the state that were considered active reached an all-time high for the second day in a row as it rose by 5,874, to 38,154.
The percentage of tests that were positive over a rolling seven-day period also continued to reach new heights, rising to 26.2% for the week ending Tuesday.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%, but it has been above that level since the week ending Dec. 22.
The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators rose Wednesday by 10, to 128, its highest level since Oct. 19.
The number who were in intensive care rose by eight, to 257, its highest level since Oct. 11.
The number of intensive care unit beds in the state's hospitals that were unoccupied fell by five, to 37.
People with covid-19 made up almost 24% of all the patients in intensive care as of Wednesday, up slightly from about 23% a day earlier.
Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock tested 1,726 people at its drive-thru site Wednesday, setting a record, spokeswoman Cara Wade said.
"Before last week, 500 was our largest day at this site," Wade said in an email.
"We've made adjustments each day in order to improve the process, and we certainly appreciate everyone's patience."
She said the percentage of the tests that were positive, including 44.2% of the tests Tuesday, was also at a record.
Baptist Health was also offering testing at 16 other sites across the state, she said.
To help speed up testing, 12 members of the Arkansas National Guard this week began working at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock, and Hutchinson announced Tuesday that he had authorized an additional 50 Guard members to help out at other locations.
Wade said Baptist Health had "gratefully accepted the offer to receive assistance from the National Guard" and was awaiting word on how much help it would get.
At its 11 hospitals around the state, Baptist on Wednesday had 172 covid-19 patients, which was still down from a peak of 300 during the state's summer surge, Wade said.
The patients Wednesday included 59 in intensive care and 32 who were on ventilators.
"The symptoms of our hospitalized patients are similar to what we've seen in the past," Wade said.
"On average, patients are not presenting as critically ill this wave as they were before. However, we still have many critically ill covid-19 patients requiring life support."
She said 60% of the 172 patients, including 86% of those who were on ventilators, had not been vaccinated.
"Throughout the pandemic, we continue to see that the majority of our severely ill patients are not vaccinated," Wade said. "Getting the vaccine continues to be the best defense against covid-19."
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's Hospital had 13 covid-19 patients Wednesday, up from 11 a day earlier, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said in an email.
The patients Wednesday included two who were in intensive care and on ventilators, she said.
"We have not made any adjustments to increase hospital capacity or change operations so far," DeMillo said.
Citing the "explosion" of cases across the state, Joe Thompson, CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, on Wednesday called on school districts that haven't already done so to require masks for all students and staff members.
Asked during an online news conference whether a statewide mandate was needed, he responded, "I think the evidence is overwhelming that masks should be in place and required in all schools."
"Unfortunately, our state leadership has chosen to not take that action," Thompson said.
"Therefore, it falls to local school boards and puts them in a difficult situation of now each school district has to make an independent decision, and unfortunately I don't think we will get to universal masking in our schools, and the risk of omicron and potentially subsequent variants will continue to propagate through our communities."
According to the center, 138 school districts had 50 or more new cases per 10,000 residents within their boundaries over a recent two-week period, up from 28 districts a week earlier.
During the most recent two-week period, ending Monday, 39 districts had 100 or more new cases per 10,000 residents.
Those included all of the traditional school districts in Pulaski County, several others in Central Arkansas, several districts in eastern and northeastern Arkansas, and some in southern Arkansas.
A week earlier, five districts, all clustered in northeastern Arkansas, had 100 or more new cases per 100,000 residents.
The cases used to calculate the rates for each district include those among residents living within the district, excluding incarcerated people, and residents of nursing homes and human development centers.
Hutchinson said in a statement that a statewide mask mandate, such as the one he imposed for about eight months starting in July 2020, "is not a realistic approach to the current Omicron variant."
"It is not realistic because legislative support is necessary and not achievable," Hutchinson said.
"In addition, the debate on masks takes away from the focus on vaccinations in our state. I have fought hard for the right of local school districts to make their own decisions on the health protections in their schools including mask requirements. As a result, many school districts have implemented mask requirements in the schools."
Act 1002, signed by Hutchinson in April, barred state and local government entities, including school districts, from requiring people to wear masks.
Hutchinson has said he regretted signing the law, and he sided with parents, school districts and others who challenged it in court.
Ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox last week struck down the law as unconstitutional.
Thompson on Wednesday also called on school districts to "redouble and recommit" to measures such as encouraging people to wash their hands and practice social distancing, and increasing ventilation in buildings.
Schools should also be prepared to temporarily shift to virtual instruction if necessary, he said.
He noted that only a small percentage of Arkansans -- 16%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- have been fully vaccinated and received booster shots, which he said is needed for "optimal protection" from omicron.
"What we're seeing from the data in different parts of the world about this omicron variant is it may be likely a shorter peak, but it is more infectious, and the impact will be felt swiftly in many areas, including our schools, our hospitals and our communities," Thompson said.
Through its contractors, the Health Department has 166 case investigators and 171 contact tracers, department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said.
Once the contractors stop conducting contact tracing, it will be "more incumbent on businesses and community members to be aware of what they're supposed to do if they get infected or if they get exposed to someone," Dillaha said.
"People who are infected will need to tell the people they know they've been around and those people will need to know what to do to quarantine," Dillaha said.
Under the CDC's latest guidelines, people who test positive should isolate until five days have passed, their symptoms are improving and they've gone 24 hours without fever.
After isolating, they should continue to wear masks until 10 days have passed since they developed symptoms or were tested.
People who were in close contact with an infected person -- meaning within 6 feet for 15 or more minutes in a 24-hour period -- should stay home for at least five days, then get tested and isolate if the result is positive or wear masks around others for five more days if the test is negative.
People can also leave home after five days if they are unable to get tested and don't have symptoms.
People who are fully vaccinated and not overdue for booster doses don't need to quarantine after an exposure but should wear masks around others for 10 days and get tested after five days, according to the CDC.
With cases skyrocketing, Dillaha said she'd advise all Arkansans to minimize trips outside the home and wear masks in public places.
People who haven't already done so should get vaccinated and get boosters if they're due for them, she said.
"We don't know how long the surge is going to last, and we don't know what's coming after it, and we just need to do everything we can to stop the spread of this virus," Dillaha said.
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had 1,658 new cases Wednesday, setting a record for the most in a single county in the state for the second day in a row.
Washington County had the next-highest number, 533, Wednesday, followed by Benton County with 502.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 588,622.
Dillaha said all of the deaths reported Wednesday happened within the past month.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew Wednesday by 89, to 29,896.
The number who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by 11, to 3,151.
After trending downward throughout most of December, the pace of vaccinations in the state continued to tick up slightly Wednesday.
The Health Department's tally of doses that had been administered rose by 9,136, an increase that was larger by 225 than the one a week earlier.
Booster shots made up 47% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 3,145, which was up by more than 500 compared with the increase in first doses a week earlier.
The average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 6,772, which was still down from more than 12,000 a day in early December.
The average for first doses rose to 2,308.
According to the CDC, 63.1% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Wednesday, up from 63% a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated rose from 51.4% as of Tuesday to 51.5%.
Of those who were fully vaccinated, 31.4% had received booster doses as of Wednesday, up from 31.1% a day earlier.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its population who had received at least one dose and 45th -- ahead of only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho -- in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 73.9% of people had received at least one dose, and 62.3% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 34.9% had received booster doses.