Arkansas recorded almost 11,000 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, setting a daily record for the sixth time in two weeks, as the number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals continued to climb amid a surge powered by the omicron variant.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 14, to 9,372.
"We have set another record in new COVID cases and a record in testing," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
He referred to the 1.5 million rapid at-home tests purchased by the state last month.
The first shipment of 211,000 iHealth tests arrived Monday.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said the second shipment, containing 393,000 tests, arrived early Wednesday.
"Our second shipment of at-home tests has been received, and we're working to get those tests around the state," Hutchinson said. "We're monitoring our hospital space and providing resources when needed."
The tests became available starting Tuesday at local health units, public libraries and other locations.
The Central Arkansas Library System said on social media Wednesday that all of its branches in Pulaski County had already run out of their initial supplies.
Several other libraries around the state also reported that they were out.
A map of locations where the tests can be picked up can be found at healthy.arkansas.gov/programs-services/topics/covid-19-guidance-for-at-home-testing.
The 10,974 new cases Wednesday were the first in single day that topped 10,000.
Previously, the record was the 8,434 cases that were added Friday.
At a record level since the week ending Jan. 2, the average daily increase over a rolling seven-day period rose to 7,454.
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 ninth day in a row as it rose by 6,399, to 71,134.
Rising by double-digits for the 13th-straight day, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 jumped by 37, to 1,185, its highest level since Sept. 9.
The number who were on ventilators rose by four, to 167, its highest level since Oct. 9.
The number who were in intensive care rose by eight, to 347, the largest number since Sept. 28.
At hospitals across the state, just 26 intensive care unit beds were unoccupied, down from 33 a day earlier. Covid-19 patients continued to make up about 31% of all the people in intensive care.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock had 75 covid-19 patients Wednesday, up from 50 a week ago and 33 two weeks ago, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
She said the hospital's all-time high for covid-19 patients was 80 during the summer surge driven by the delta variant.
"We're just right there," Taylor said. "We're knocking on the door."
The patients Wednesday included nine who were in intensive care and six who were on ventilators.
By comparison, in the summer, the number of covid-19 patients in intensive care at the hospital peaked at 33 on Aug. 2.
At that time, the hospital had a total of 73 covid-19 patients.
"It seems to be a little less severe as far as the cases," Taylor said.
"Patients aren't as sick, but this is so transmissible, there are a lot more cases of this than there were with delta."
None of the covid-19 patients Wednesday were on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machines, which are similar to heart-lung bypass machines used during open-heart surgeries.
"We had an ECMO patient a few days ago, but that patient died," Taylor said.
She said about a third of the 75 covid-19 patients in the hospital Wednesday had initially been admitted for reasons unrelated to covid-19 but were found, through routine testing performed on all patients, to be infected with the virus.
On the other hand, she said the hospital has been seeing an increase in pregnant women being admitted for covid-19.
Eleven pregnant women were among the covid-19 patients hospitalized Wednesday, she said.
"It seems to be affecting them a little more than other patients, and that's something that we saw with delta too," Taylor said.
She said 30 of the 75 covid-19 patients had been fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, she said 684 of UAMS' 11,000 employees were off work for reasons related to covid-19, up from 543 a week earlier.
The employees Wednesday included 305 who had tested positive for the virus. Of those, 164 are health care workers, Taylor said.
She said the hospital hasn't stopped performing procedures that aren't urgent, but is "trying to space them out a little bit more."
"If it doesn't have to be done this week, we schedule it for next week, and we try to space them out," she said.
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's Hospital had 25 covid-19 patients Wednesday, down from 30 a day earlier and an all-time high of 31 on Aug. 13, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
She said four of the patients Wednesday were fully vaccinated, and none were partially vaccinated.
About half of the 25 patients were at least 5 years old, making them eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
Covid-19 cases and quarantines prompted dozens more school districts across the state to announce shifts to virtual instruction through the rest of this week, with classes resuming Tuesday after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
After resuming in-person instruction Wednesday, the Little Rock School District's Terry Elementary and Horace Mann Magnet Middle schools shifted back to virtual instruction for today and Friday.
That brought to 11 the number of campuses in the district using remote instruction for those two days.
All but nine of the district's campuses resumed in-person classes Wednesday after holding classes remotely for two days at the end of last week and beginning of this week.
In all, at least 108 covid-19-related closings or shifts to virtual instruction, most of them districtwide, have been reported to the state since classes resumed this week after the holiday break, said Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Of those shifts or closings, 83 were reported this week, she said.
By comparison, just 29 such shifts had been reported at this point in the second semester of last school year, and 40 were reported during all of this year's first semester.
Unlike last school year, when emergency rules were in place, school districts that make such shifts must draw from their 10 alternative methods of instruction days or make up the days later in the year.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will have in-person instruction as it begins its spring term Tuesday, interim Chancellor Charles Robinson said in a message to the campus Wednesday.
"In order to make this work best, it is on each of us to do our part to demonstrate personal accountability to keep each other safe with the full utilization of our mitigation tools (vaccination, masking, hand sanitization)," Robinson said in the emailed message.
The university is "enhancing our enforcement of mask compliance and partnering with student leaders to better promote our shared expectation for the most protective types of masks and proper mask wearing," Robinson said.
Masks are required indoors in classrooms, as well as educational and general buildings where 6 feet of distancing isn't possible, Robinson said.
Robinson said the university's Pat Walker Health Center is available for covid-19 testing for those with symptoms, and that other members of the campus community -- such as those considered a close contact of someone with covid-19 -- will be able to attend a "mass testing clinic" from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each weekday on campus starting Tuesday.
The campus clinics will continue for the first five weeks of the semester, Robinson said.
"I strongly encourage vaccination including booster shots as well as flu shots -- and these options remain available throughout our community and at Pat Walker Health Center," Robinson said.
The campus will also host a "town hall" style event Wednesday to discuss the spring semester, Robinson said.
Students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will also meet for face-to-face classes when the school's spring term begins Tuesday, Chancellor Christina Drale said in a message to campus.
"In-person classes will meet as scheduled. Offices and facilities will be open for on-campus service," Drale said Wednesday in her written message.
In Central Arkansas, some colleges -- including the University of Central Arkansas and Philander Smith College -- have opted to start their spring semesters with online classes, citing the recent surge of covid-19 cases.
Drale said the campus "will be prepared to move classes and/or services online."
UALR continues to require indoor masking, as it did in the fall semester, and Drale said "we strongly encourage using disposable surgical masks in addition to, or instead of, single-layer cloth masks."
Ouachita Baptist University announced Tuesday that through the first three weeks of the school's spring term, a requirement will be in place to wear face coverings "in places where students are required to attend," such as in campus classrooms and chapel services.
Faculty members, while teaching, will not be required to wear face coverings.
The school's spring term is to start with in-person instruction Wednesday, with masking protocols to be reassessed in early February, according to the update.
"We have reason to believe that the first few weeks will be very disruptive -- even though it should be short-lived. We anticipate having classes with waves of students and faculty in isolation/quarantine, offices with below normal staffing, and activities adjusted," said Ben Sells, the university's president.
Sells also described striking a balance for the campus as the pandemic continues on.
"Many universities are starting virtually or making other mandates. We believe our balanced approach of community protocols and personal responsibility appropriately supports physical and mental health so that students can experience academic progress, spiritual growth and personal development," Sells said.
The Arkadelphia campus loosened mask requirements in October, making them optional in classrooms -- while still allowing for a faculty member to require face coverings in a class -- and then in November made masks optional during chapel services.
"As an additional resource, every student and employee will be provided a KN95 mask," Sells said in the campus update posted on the university's website.
North Arkansas College, a two-year college in Harrison, announced Wednesday that students will have the option to attend classes remotely, as well as a temporary masking requirement that starts today, Jan. 13.
Rick Massengale, the college's president, in a statement cited a surge in campus covid-19 cases since classes began Monday. The college had four cases of covid-19 Monday, then over the next 24 hours had 12 additional cases reported, according to the school's announcement.
"The Healthy Campus Task Force met this morning and after careful consideration of the situation in the state, county and the recent surge at the college, recommended a temporary mask mandate," Massengale said Wednesday, with masks to be worn in classrooms and shared indoor areas when 6 feet of distancing is not possible.
The announcement recommended "KN95, N95 or double-layer masks" and did not include an end date for the mask requirement.
While the state's new case numbers have far surpassed the levels they reached last winter and in the summer, the number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals as of Wednesday, while climbing steeply, had yet to reach the levels they did in previous surges.
Compared with the peak reached during the summer surge powered by the delta variant, the number hospitalized as of Wednesday was still about 19% lower.
The number on ventilators was about 57% lower than its peak during the summer, while the number in intensive care was about 38% lower.
Dillaha said, however, that she's "very concerned" about the state's hospital capacity. The state's hospitalizations likely won't start slowing down until after the new cases do, she noted.
"The hospitals have done an excellent job thus far in the pandemic of adapting their activities and hiring new employees," Dillaha said.
The $50.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act Funds approved by legislative leaders this week to open 265 beds at 11 new hospitals across the state will be "an important aspect in addressing the current situation, especially since the hospitals now have the additional challenge of so many of their employees being out with covid-19 themselves," Dillaha said.
She said 30.5% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive over the seven-day span ending Tuesday, down slightly from a record 30.6% the week ending Monday.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%, but it has been above that level since the week ending Dec. 22.
During previous surges, the record percentage was 19% in the week ending Jan. 1, 2021.
"We are in a very difficult situation in our state, and it will have a negative impact on the health of so many people," Dillaha said. "It's very worrisome."
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had the most new cases with 1,584 Wednesday, followed by Washington County with 1,014 and Benton County with 701.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 640,799.
Dillaha said 12 of the deaths reported Wednesday happened within the past month. Of the others, one occurred in August, and one was in early December.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew Wednesday by 117, to 30,506.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on ventilators rose by nine, to 3,195.
The Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose Wednesday by 7,570, which was smaller by more than 1,500 than the increase a week earlier.
Booster shots accounted for 48% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 2,410, which was down by 735 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 fell to 7,709, which was still up from an average of 6,772 a day the previous week but down from more than 12,000 a day in early December.
The average for first doses fell to 2,564.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 63.6% of Arkansans had received at least one dose as of Wednesday, up from 63.5% a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated rose from 51.7% as of Tuesday to 51.8%.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 33.2% had received a booster dose as of Wednesday, up from 33% a day earlier.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose.
It was roughly tied with Tennessee for 44th, ahead of Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 74.6% of people had received at least one vaccine dose as of Wednesday, and 62.7% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 37% had received booster doses.
Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.