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Arkansas covid hospitalizatons reach new record of 1,819 despite signs that omicron surge has peaked

Governor looks to increase beds by Andy Davis | January 27, 2022 at 7:13 a.m.
Nurses Kia Kandlbinder (left) and Brionna Rivers hand equipment through the door to fellow nurses in one of the Covid wards at University of Arkansas for Medical Science on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Little Rock. .(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday that he would explore further measures to increase the state's hospital capacity after the number of hospitalized covid-19 patients rebounded to a new all-time high.

After falling by 32 Tuesday, the number of hospitalized patients rose Wednesday by 34, to 1,819, breaking the previous record of 1,817 covid-19 patients who were in the state's hospitals Monday.

The jump came even as the state's case numbers continued to point toward a slowdown in new infections after weeks of steep increases during a surge powered by the omicron variant.

After reaching an all-time high of 102,576 Saturday, for example, the number of cases in the state that were active fell Wednesday for the fourth day in a row, bringing it to 84,226, as recoveries and deaths continued to outpace new cases.

"Another decline in active cases is encouraging," Hutchinson said in a tweet.

"The increased hospitalizations are a challenge."

He said he would meet today with his "covid winter task force," made up of hospital executives, Department of Health officials and others, to "determine what additional steps will open up more capacity."

Since Jan. 18, the number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals has been above its previous peak of 1,459 in August during the surge driven by the delta variant.

During last winter's surge, the number peaked at 1,371 in January 2020.

Because it can take several days for someone to become sick enough to be hospitalized after they're infected, health officials have said it wouldn't be surprising for the number of hospitalized covid-19 patients to keep rising even after new cases start falling.

"We very well may have hit our peak" in new cases, Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said Wednesday.

"I'm feeling hopeful about that. I'm not feeling hopeful that we've met our hospitalization peak yet."

She noted that, after falling by 26 Sunday, the number hospitalized rose by 184 Monday, which was the largest increase in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

"That was a huge jump," Dillaha said. "I would hate for us to be in a position where we needed to have another huge jump and not have the beds to do it."

To make room for the growing number of patients, the state earlier this month allocated $50.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to open up 265 beds at 11 hospitals around the state.

Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said Wednesday that 255 of those beds had been opened, including 212 that were already filled with patients.

A request by the department to expand capacity further by opening 27 beds for covid-19 patients at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center, using $4.7 million in federal funds, is set to go to the Legislative Council for approval Friday.

NEW CASES DOWN

The state's case count rose Wednesday by 6,561.

While larger than any daily increase before the omicron surge, the increase Wednesday was smaller by more than 1,300 than the one a day earlier and less than half the size of the record spike of 14,494 cases the previous Wednesday.

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Health Department, rose Wednesday by 18, to 9,574.

After a rapid rise that began in late December, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period began falling after reaching a high of 9,122 in the week ending Jan. 16.

The average rose by 676 Tuesday, then fell by more than 1,100 Wednesday to 7,700, the first time it had been below 8,000 since the week ending Jan. 12.

In another sign of the slowing spread of the virus, the percentage of the state's coronavirus tests that are positive has been slowly falling after skyrocketing in late December and early January.

Over the seven-day span ending Tuesday, the percentage was 32.6%, down from the 34.5% that was initially reported for the week ending Monday and an all-time high of 35.9% over the seven-day spans ending Jan. 16, 17 and 18.

Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%, but it has been higher than that since the week ending Dec. 22.

FEWER ON VENTILATORS

Despite the increase in hospitalized patients, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators and in intensive care fell Wednesday.

The number on ventilators fell by 10, to 223, after rising the previous two days.

After topping 500 Tuesday for the first time since early September, the number who were in intensive care fell Wednesday by 32, to 483.

Since Saturday, the number has been above its peak of 458 last winter, although it remains below the all-time high of 558 that it reached last summer.

The number of covid-19 patients on ventilators peaked at 388 last summer and at 268 last winter.

At hospitals around the state, just 23 intensive care unit beds were unoccupied Wednesday, up from 20 a day earlier.

The percentage of all intensive care unit patients who had covid-19 fell from about 43% Tuesday to 40%.

HOSPITAL NUMBERS

At its 11 hospitals around the state, Baptist Health had 362 covid-19 patients Wednesday, down from a record 368 a day earlier, spokeswoman Cara Wade said in an email.

"Unfortunately, we did see an increase in patients requiring critical care," Wade said.

She said the number in intensive care rose by five, to 109, while the number on ventilators rose by the same number, to 81.

"At last check, 10 percent of our COVID patients have had a booster shot and 22 percent have had two shots," Wade said.

"Vaccines continue to be our best defense against the virus."

Although hospital beds and staffing are "extremely limited," she said the health system hasn't had to postpone non-urgent procedures, although that "remains an option to create hospital capacity in the future if needed."

The UAMS Medical Center had 86 covid-19 patients Wednesday, down from a record 99 a day earlier, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.

"Certainly, 86 patients is better than 99, but at the same time, that's a lot of patients," she said.

She noted that the number Wednesday remained above the peak of 80 it reached during the surge last summer.

"We'd like to see the numbers continue to go down," she said.

The patients Wednesday included 16 who were in intensive care and seven who were on ventilators, both numbers that hadn't changed from a day earlier.

"The bad news is we did have two deaths from covid" Tuesday, she said.

She said 40 of the 86 covid-19 patients in the hospital Wednesday had been fully vaccinated.

At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's Hospital had 37 covid-19 patients Wednesday, down from 40 Tuesday and a record 46 on Jan. 19, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.

The patients Wednesday included four who were on intensive care and on ventilators, she said.

She said more than half of the patients were at least 5 years old, making them eligible for vaccination, but only eight had been fully immunized.

The Northwest Arkansas Council, a business group, said hospitals in Washington and Benton counties had a total of 173 covid-19 patients Wednesday, down from an all-time high of 185 a day earlier.

The patients ranged in age from younger than 1 to 96, with an average age of 46, the council said.

FEWER TESTED

UAMS and Baptist Health, which each have about 11,000 employees, have continued to see declines in the number of their workers who are out for reasons related to covid-19 and in the demand for testing.

At its drive-thru site, Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock tested 468 people Wednesday, down from 530 Tuesday and a record of 1,726 on Jan. 5, Wade said.

She said about 37% of the tests at Baptist's 18 testing sites around the state, including 30% of the ones from the Little Rock site, have been coming back positive.

Meanwhile, she said 187 Baptist Health employees were out Wednesday for reasons related to covid-19, down from 190 Tuesday and 584 early last week.

At its drive-thru clinic in Little Rock, UAMS tested 414 people Tuesday, down from 530 Monday and an average of 800 a day earlier in the month, Taylor said.

The percentage of tests that are positive has fallen from 40% to 45% last week to 30% to 35% this week, Taylor said.

She said UAMS had 449 employees who were out Wednesday for reasons related to covid-19, down from 469 a day earlier.

The number who had tested positive for covid-19 fell from 213 Tuesday to 208.

The number who were out Wednesday included 261 health care workers, 135 of whom had tested positive.

DeMillo said Arkansas Children's had 234 employees who were out Wednesday for reasons related to covid-19, which was down from 244 just over a week earlier.

INMATE INFECTIONS

Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves told lawmakers Wednesday that the state has had 13,338 covid-19 cases among prison inmates from March 2020 t0 Jan. 15.

Those resulted in 239 hospitalizations and 52 deaths.

Data provided to the Legislative Council's Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions Subcommittee showed that cases, hospitalizations and deaths spiked from March until November in 2020 before plummeting and steadying out for all of 2021.

"We really divide the pandemic into two halves," Graves said. "The first part is from March of 2020 until fall of 2020, and then that period of time you see a decline that has been sustained in the case count prior to the omicron variant that we have all seen across the state."

Graves said the Department of Corrections went through most of 2021 without a hospitalization from covid-19, with the first one of the year occurring in December.

"The most recent hospitalizations have been ones that were tested positive after they were transferred out for a medical appointment," he said.

No inmates have died from covid-19 since January of 2021, according to the data provided to the committee.

The number of covid-19 vaccinations administered to the inmate population since March 2020 has reached 22,024, according to the data.

"We began vaccinating for covid-19 in March of 2021," Graves said. "We had right about 100 inmates vaccinated prior to that point, and that was through their work release program where their employer offered the vaccine."

Health Department reports have shown an increase in cases among inmates during the omicron surge.

According to a report dated Tuesday, 393 had tested positive within the past two weeks.

Another point of interest during the subcommittee meeting was the month-by-month breakdown of the backup of state inmates being held in county jails that is spiking to a two-year high this month.

Graves said a portion of this spike is because of the covid-19 protocols that are in place in state prisons.

"Fortunately we have space at our community corrections, but due to our quarantine protocols we are currently on lockdown status. We haven't been able to bring in people," he said. "After the isolation period is over we will be able to address this."

VACCINATIONS DOWN

Unlike the delta surge last year, the wave of cases caused by the omicron variant hasn't led to an uptick in Arkansas' vaccinations.

Since early December, the average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period has fallen from more than 12,000 to less than 4,700, according to Health Department figures.

The average number of people receiving their first doses each day fell Monday to 1,383, a new low since the department started reporting daily vaccination numbers in January 2021.

After staying about the same Tuesday, the average dropped further, to 1,361, Wednesday.

"I'm really concerned about the low levels of vaccinations that are occurring," Dillaha said.

She said that from Dec. 1 through Monday, 62.3% of the state's cases, 67.1% of its hospitalizations from covid-19 and 76.4% of its deaths from the virus had been among people who were not fully vaccinated.

People who had been fully vaccinated, but had not received booster shots, made up 33.8% of the cases, 29.8% of the hospitalizations and 22.4% of the deaths.

Just 3.9% of the cases, 3.2% of the hospitalizations and 1.1% of the deaths were among people who had been fully vaccinated and boosted.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 34% of Arkansas' population had been fully vaccinated, but not boosted, as of Wednesday, while an additional 19% were fully vaccinated with booster shots.

"It's very clear from our data that people need to be fully vaccinated and boosted to be protected from the current surge," Dillaha said.

She said it's especially important for more children to be vaccinated.

So far this month, she said, 191 children have been hospitalized with covid-19, surpassing the previous record of 146 pediatric hospitalizations in August during the delta surge.

"I think there may be some misperceptions that covid-19 with the omicron variant is a mild illness," Dillaha said. "People don't realize that it is milder than the delta variant, but it still makes a lot of people severely ill, and people are dying from it."

People who haven't been vaccinated also may not be familiar with long-term complications that can result from covid-19, she said.

According to the CDC, those include fatigue, shortness of breath and difficulty thinking, among other conditions.

"I'm worried that people are overly concerned about complications from the vaccines, which are very rare, and not worried about complications from covid-19," she said.

STATE RANKINGS

According to the CDC, 64.8% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Wednesday, a percentage that hadn't changed from a day earlier.

The percentage who had been fully vaccinated remained at 52.5%.

Of those who had been fully vaccinated, the percentage who had received booster doses remained at 35.6%.

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.

In the percentage who were fully vaccinated, it remained roughly tied with Tennessee for 45th, ahead of Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Wyoming and Alabama.

Nationally, 75.8% of people had received at least one dose, and 63.5% were fully vaccinated.

Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 40.4% had received booster doses.

CASES BY COUNTY

Pulaski County had the most new cases, 688, Wednesday, followed by Benton County with 531 and Washington County with 465.

The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 756,385.

Dillaha said 16 of the deaths reported Wednesday happened within the past month.

Of the others, one was in November, and the other was earlier in December.

The number of virus patients who have ever been hospitalized in the state grew Wednesday by 141, to 32,552.

The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on ventilators rose by 14, to 3,345.

Information for this article was contributed by Stephen Simpson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: Arkansas covid hospitalizations reach new record despite signs omicron surge has peaked

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