Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Thursday by almost 7,800, setting a single-day record for new cases for the third day in a row.
Rising by double-digits for the seventh day in a row, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 jumped Thursday by 73, to 892, its highest level since Sept. 24.
Arkansas' death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 22, to 9,278.
"I think we're continuing with the escalation in the number of cases, and also the hospitalizations, which is very concerning," said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer.
Also on Thursday, the Arkansas National Guard announced that 40 guardsmen will be heading to health care providers in Little Rock, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Mountain Home, Pine Bluff and Rogers to help speed up coronavirus testing and free up health care workers to provide other types of care.
Meanwhile, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the first 450,000 of the 1.5 million rapid home tests purchased by the state last week were expected to arrive in Arkansas today.
Dillaha said the iHealth tests will be distributed on Monday to local health units, public libraries and other locations across the state where they will be available for free to the public.
The state is expected to receive the rest of the tests by the end of next week, Hutchinson said in a statement.
He cautioned that delivery dates could shift because of shipping congestion and other factors.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said people will be allowed two tests per day for an individual or six per day for a family. The tests come in packs of two.
In a video conference hosted by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and Arkansas Municipal League, Hutchinson said the tests will give people "quick information, but it will also relieve some of the burden and the long lines at the hospitals because they can get quicker information this way."
The 7,787 cases added to the state's count on Thursday followed record-setting jumps of 6,562 on Tuesday and 7,488 on Wednesday.
Before this week, the biggest increase since the start of the pandemic was a spike of 4,978 cases a week ago, on Dec. 30.
The increase on Thursday in covid-19 patients who were hospitalized was the largest in a single day since Sept. 1.
State officials said the increase of 101 patients on that day was partly the result of an inaccurate number that was reported a day earlier.
Aside from that increase, the one Thursday was the largest since Aug. 9, near the height of the summer surge, when the number rose by 103.
At a record level since Sunday, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose Thursday to 4,840.
The percentage of tests that were positive over a rolling seven-day period also continued to reach new heights, rising to 27.2% for the week ending Wednesday.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%, but it has been above that level since the week ending Dec. 22.
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 third day in a row as it rose by 6,015, to 44,169.
After rising the previous three days, however, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators fell by one, to 127.
The number who were in intensive care jumped by 11, to 268, its highest level since Oct. 7.
The number of intensive care unit beds in the state that were unoccupied rose by nine, to 46, as a result of a drop in non-covid-19 patients who were in intensive care.
People with covid-19 made up almost 25% of all the state's intensive care unit patients on Thursday, up slightly from about 24% a day earlier.
To help speed up testing, 12 National Guard members began working this week at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' drive-thru testing center in Little Rock.
Hutchinson announced Tuesday that he had authorized an additional 50 Guard members to help out at other locations.
Hutchinson spokesman Shealyn Sowers said Thursday the 40 members of the 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team set to go out next week will fulfill the requests that have been received so far from hospitals and other health care providers.
Additional guardsmen could be sent if needed, she said.
St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, where six guardsmen were assigned, will use the extra help to set up a testing location separate from the primary care and urgent care clinics where the tests are now administered, spokesman Mitchell Nail said.
"Many individuals are having a hard time finding over-the-counter tests at various retailers, and then you start talking about making an appointment or long lines at an urgent care, or even worse, having somebody show up at the emergency room," he said.
He said the hospital had 77 covid-19 patients on Thursday, down from 84 a few days ago but up from just over 40 around Christmas.
The hospital's covid-19 patients peaked at 104 in November 2020 and at 99 during the summer surge driven by the delta variant, he said.
The patients on Thursday included 12 who were in intensive care, which down slightly from the number a couple weeks earlier, and four who were on ventilators.
"I think that kind of tells us the same thing what we've been seeing with omicron, is that it may not be as severe as delta, but it is still putting people in the hospital," Nail said.
He said about 70% of the patients in the hospital Thursday had not been vaccinated.
During the current surge, about 95% of ICU patients and all or nearly all patients on ventilators have been unvaccinated, he said.
Six guardsmen will work at Washington Regional Medical Center's drive-thru testing site in Fayetteville.
Washington Regional spokeswoman Natalie Hardin said the number of people seeking tests at the site has more than doubled since Christmas.
"This additional support will allow us to more efficiently test community members and communicate test results in a timely manner," she said in an email.
In addition, she said it will allow the hospital "to utilize our existing testing center staff to provide additional direct patient care."
"Over the last couple weeks, Washington Regional has seen an increase in patients needing hospitalization, but it has remained manageable," Hardin said.
"We're seeing the biggest surge right now in demand for testing (COVID, flu, strep) in outpatient and urgent care settings. Our team is working to accommodate the needs of our community as best we can and we are adapting and expanding services in our primary care clinics to allow patients to be cared for and minimize wait times."
The Guard will also send six members each to Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock and Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers.
Medical Associates of Northwest Arkansas in Fayetteville, Mercy Hospital Fort Smith and NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro will each get four guardsmen.
Baxter Regional Medical Center in Mountain Home and Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff will each get two.
The guardsmen, whose initial orders are for 30 days, will report to Camp Robinson in North Little Rock on Monday and to the testing sites the following day.
The 12 guardsmen assigned to UAMS Medical Center are allowing the hospital to keep its drive-thru testing clinic open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., seven days a week, instead of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
She said the clinic tested 834 people on Wednesday.
So many cars were waiting at 3 p.m. that hospital stopped allowing new ones to join the line, she said.
"If it looks like we have several hundred cars still in line, we don't want someone to wait for several hours and then be told you can't be seen," Taylor said.
She said the hospital had 52 covid-19 patients on Thursday, including eight who were in intensive care, three who were on ventilators and one on a heart-lung bypass machine.
Eighteen of the 52 patients had been vaccinated, she said.
"We are doing pretty well right now," Taylor said. "Our biggest problem continues to be staffing."
She said 588 of UAMS' 11,000 employees were off work for reasons related to covid-19, up from 484 a day earlier.
The number on Thursday included 276 workers who had tested positive, up from 202 on Wednesday.
"We don't know from shift to shift how many folks are going to call in, and that's a problem," Taylor said.
Dr. Susan Smyth, dean of the UAMS College of Medicine, said during the video conference that UAMS is looking at ways of expanding the use of technology to help monitor patients and "redeploying folks to roles they might not normally take on."
"We have had to push back some procedures that are not needed in an immediate manner," Smyth said.
"Anything that is very time sensitive, we're getting done, but things that you can have a day or two delay for something, we're starting to push that back.
"That will have downstream consequences, because all of that will build up."
A growing number of cases and quarantines prompted the North Little Rock School District to shift to virtual instruction for today and Monday, making it the third district in Pulaski County to announce such a shift this week.
Previously, only seventh- and eighth- graders in North Little Rock had been remote learners this week after students returned Tuesday from the holiday break.
Superintendent Greg Pilewski said in a message Thursday to parents there would be no on-site instruction or after school activities, but food service will be provided on campus from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Health Department on Thursday reported that the 9,000-student district had 119 active cases among students and employees, the third-highest among districts in the state and up from 48 as of Monday.
The Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts announced Wednesday that their campuses would be closed Thursday and today, with instruction delivered online. Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District campuses continue to provide in-person instruction.
The Clarendon School District also shifted to virtual instruction Thursday and today "due to possible inclement weather and a high increase of Covid cases in the district," according to a post on the Clarendon High School Facebook page.
SCHOOL CASES UP
At public elementary and secondary schools statewide, the number of active cases among students and employees more than doubled, from 1,410 to 3,923, from Monday to Thursday, according to Health Department reports released twice a week.
The Little Rock School district had the largest number, 251, on Thursday, followed by the Marion School District, which had 145.
The number of districts and charter school systems with five or more active cases also more than doubled, from 66 as of Monday to 154 on Thursday.
At colleges and universities, the number of active cases among students and employees rose by 314, to 509, from Monday to Thursday.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, had the most on Thursday, 135, followed by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with 52 and Arkansas Tech University in Russellville with 50.
At private elementary and secondary schools, the number of active cases among students and employees rose by 120, to 171.
Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock had the largest number, 22, on Thursday, followed by Little Rock Christian Academy with 12 and Harding Academy in Searcy with 11.
Some other states and cities have moved more quickly than Arkansas in providing rapid at-home tests to the public.
Days before Christmas, Philadelphia's health department said it was giving out test kits at various sites. The department reported giving out 24,000 kits.
Residents in Washington, D.C., have been able to pick up rapid at-home tests for free at public libraries as well.
The Ohio Department of Health said it bought 2 million rapid home tests last year "with the intention of making the tests publicly accessible statewide." Library locations distributed tens of thousands of tests in August, the department said.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in September the state had obtained 2 million at-home rapid tests and would be making them available to the general public. The state says it has distributed more than 1.5 million tests.
In the statement Thursday, Hutchinson said cities that handed out tests earlier were already seeing rapidly increasing coronavirus cases.
"We have been an early leader and innovator in the plan to distribute at home rapid tests," Hutchinson said. "It is important to note that one strategy is not sufficient to combat the increase of [the] Omicron variant."
Hutchinson has also complained that the purchase of 500 million rapid tests by the federal government made it harder for states to secure their own supplies.
President Joe Biden said last month the test will be given out for free to Americans who request them. The White House says the initial deliveries will begin in this month.
Medical experts, public health officials and infectious disease specialists had predicted that a winter coronavirus surge would be coming, said Dr. Jessica Justman, an associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
It's disappointing that there's not better access to rapid at-home tests, she said.
"Many people have been saying that rapid test kits would be very helpful, and that we should have those readily available," she said, adding that they have "so much potential" to help cut down on transmission.
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had 1,805 new cases on Thursday, setting a record for the most in a single county in the state for the third day in a row.
Washington County had the next highest number, 699, on Thursday, followed by Faulkner County with 503.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 596,409.
Dillaha said 13 of the deaths reported Thursday happened within the past month.
Of the others, seven occurred in August, one happened in November and one was from earlier in December.
The number of Arkansans who have ever been hospitalized with covid-19 grew by 148, to 30,044.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by 13, to 3,164.
In a break from a recent upward trend, the Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 9,331, which was smaller by 294 than the increase a week earlier.
Booster shots made up 48% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 3,056, which was down by 10 compared to the increase in first doses a week earlier.
After rising the previous two days, the average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 6,730.
The average for first doses fell to 2,307.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 63.2% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Thursday, up from 63.1% a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated remained at 51.5%.
Of those who were fully vaccinated, 31.7% had received a booster dose, up from 31.4% 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, 74% of people had received at least one dose, and 62.4% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 35.3% had received a booster dose.
Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell and Neal Earley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.