Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday acknowledged that the omicron variant is "raging across Arkansas," but he said the surge in cases doesn't warrant responses advocated a day earlier by a health policy center.
Citing the "explosion of the omicron variant across Arkansas communities," the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement on Monday called for a shift to virtual instruction in 165 school districts with high rates of new cases.
It also recommended "sheltering in place" for senior citizens, families with unvaccinated children and families with members at high risk of severe covid-19, and the "suspension of public interactions or implementation of virtual options where possible on the part of municipalities, businesses and houses of worship."
"You can't stop living," Hutchinson said Tuesday.
"You can't be calling for suspension of public interactions. That's not where we are in our society today, and that's not what we need to do to get through this."
Hutchinson spoke as the state's count of cases rose by more than 7,700 and the number hospitalized with covid-19 topped 1,100 for the first time since September.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 25, to 9,358.
Also Tuesday, Health Department local health units, public libraries and other locations began distributing rapid home covid-19 tests -- purchased by the state late last month -- for free to the public.
Meanwhile, legislative leaders said they had signed off on a Health Department request to spend $50.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to open up 265 beds at 11 hospitals across the state.
At his weekly news conference at the state Capitol, Hutchinson urged people to get vaccinated, "tested as needed and take the precautions that your particular situation dictates."
But he said in-person classroom instruction is "critically important for the well-being of our young people" and that families with unvaccinated children shouldn't be told to shelter in place.
"Can you imagine if you've got a nurse that is told they need to shelter in place because they've got unvaccinated children?" the Republican governor said.
"We need these people in the workplace. We need them in the health care facilities, and we cannot be sheltering in place and considering that as an option."
He said the omicron variant is "raging across Arkansas, but what we see from the data internationally and nationally is that this will pass through."
"We're anxious for that to happen, but we've got to hold the line," Hutchinson said.
"We've got to make sure we take the actions so we can get through January into February where we expect to see this variant diminish significantly just like it has in other countries."
Arkansas' count of cases rose Tuesday by 7,756, which was larger by almost 1,200 than the increase the previous Tuesday.
At a record level since the week ending Jan. 2, the average daily increase over a rolling seven-day period rose to 6,956.
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 eighth day in a row as it rose by 3,613, to 64,735.
Rising by double-digits for the 12th day in a row, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 jumped by 80, to 1,148, its highest level since Sept. 10.
The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators rose by 16, to 163, its highest level since Oct. 13.
The number who were in intensive care rose by 35, to 339, the largest number since Oct. 3.
At hospitals across the state, just 33 intensive care unit beds were unoccupied, down from 41 a day earlier.
People with covid-19 made up almost 31% of all the patients in intensive care, up from about 28% a day earlier.
At its 11 hospitals across the state, Baptist Health had 214 covid-19 patients, up from 211 a day earlier but still down from a peak of 300 during the state's summer surge, spokeswoman Cara Wade said in an email.
The patients Tuesday included 73 who were in intensive care and 48 who were on ventilators.
"It is not uncommon to flex and adjust daily in order to create capacity," Wade said.
"The primary challenge is having adequate staffing to open additional beds. The current nursing shortage along with the highly contagious spread of omicron and its impact on our employees makes for a very challenging situation."
She said 59% of the 214 covid-19 patients, including 71% of those in intensive care and 76% of those on ventilators, had not been vaccinated.
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's Hospital had 30 covid-19 patients Tuesday, up from 29 a day earlier and just short of its all-time high of 31 on Aug. 13, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
The patients Tuesday included four who were in intensive care and three who were on ventilators, she said.
The Health Department last month purchased 1.5 million rapid home tests using $10 million in grant money from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hutchinson said the first shipment of 211,000 iHealth tests arrived Monday, and 393,000 more were expected to arrive Tuesday evening.
The Health Department posted a map of locations were the tests can be picked up at healthy.arkansas.gov/programs-services/topics/covid-19-guidance-for-at-home-testing.
People are limited to two tests per day for an individual or six per day for a family. The tests come in boxes of two.
April Hicks, branch manager at the Nixon Library of the Central Arkansas Library System, said the Jacksonville facility ran out of in-home tests less than two hours after receiving them.
"It was a crazy two hours," she said. "It was phone call after phone call after phone call."
Hicks said the library didn't even have time to make an announcement about having the tests before they were all gone.
"We have been getting phone calls since last week when Gov. Asa Hutchinson talked about it at the press conference," she said.
"This week has been what all our phone calls have been about. The news of the tests spread by word of mouth like a wildfire."
Brooks Caruthers, a library assistant at the Terry branch of the Central Arkansas Library System, said they had something similar at the library in Little Rock.
"We had something like 180 boxes, and each box had two tests in it," he said. "People just came pouring in, and they were quickly gone."
Nate Coulter, the library system's executive director, said the system received 2,800 tests Tuesday and handed them out to all the branches.
"I have been getting emails all day about the allotment of tests being exhausted," he said. "We still have some at the Main Library, but they are distributing them fast. ... We had people thanking us for having them available."
Coulter said he was kind of expecting the rush on in-home tests.
"A lot of library directors across the country have been talking about how they haven't been able to keep them for very long," he said.
"We are happy to hand them out and pleased with the affirmation of the importance of the library when it comes to helping communities, but we are limited to the tests we receive."
Coulter said he anticipates the library system getting more tests.
"I assume we will get more, and the response will be the same," he said. "We don't know when additional supplies will be available at this time."
Robin Campbell, director of communications at the William F. Laman Public Library System in North Little Rock, said the system expects to distribute tests this morning at both of its libraries.
"They will be provided on a first-come, first-serve basis, and people can request curbside service," she said. "We anticipate a very busy week, but we think our staff can handle it."
Arkansans were also continuing to flock to other types of coronavirus tests.
"The lines of cars on our Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock campus at any given hour show there is still a high demand for testing," Wade said.
"Before this surge, a record-setting day would have been 500 people coming through the drive-thru testing site at Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock. Now, it's not uncommon to swab 1,500 people a day, with our highest single-day number at just over 1,700. The percentage of people testing positive at this drive-thru site has stayed at around 40 percent in recent days."
An advisory committee Monday recommended approval of the Health Department's request to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds to increase the state's hospital capacity.
After that recommendation, the Legislative Council co-chairmen, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, and Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said they signed off on the Department of Health's request for spending authority to use these funds.
They said the request was also approved by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, and Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, who are the co-chairmen of the Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee.
At his news conference Tuesday, Hutchinson said the additional beds "should assure us of having space into the next week or so, anyway," and additional steps can be taken to increase hospital capacity if needed.
He said a Health Department survey on Jan. 4 found that 30% of the covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals at that time had initially been admitted for other reasons and might not have had symptoms of the virus at the time they were tested.
In such cases, hospitals still have to take precautions to keep the infection from spreading, and "it is appropriate to count that, but it's also important for everyone to understand that distinction," Hutchinson said.
He said a recent photograph of him not wearing a mask while attending a boy's basketball tournament in Bentonville is "just an example of where we don't stop living because this is here."
"As everyone knows, you get vaccinated, and you take the precautions that the circumstances dictated, and I believe we did that night," Hutchinson said.
He noted that the Bentonville School District is prohibited by a judge's order, in a lawsuit filed by parents against the district, from requiring people to wear masks. The district is appealing the judge's ruling.
At another point in the news conference, Health Secretary Jose Romero said people going out in public "should be using a mask at this time."
"That is your safest way of protecting yourself even if you've been vaccinated and more so if you have not," Romero said.
In response to the surge in cases, Education Secretary Johnny Key said officials had suspended a requirement for school districts with mask mandates to conduct contact tracing after a student or employee tests positive.
An exception, he said, is when the exposure occurred in "settings of high transmissibility" such as athletic or other extracurricular activities where masks aren't worn.
In districts without mask requirements, schools must still identify "probable close contacts" of people who test positive, but aren't required to report the contacts to the state, he said.
"We believe that this will provide some immediate relief to those districts who are encountering just an overwhelming number of reporting burdens and tracing burdens right now," Key said.
A probable close contact, in school settings, is defined as someone who was within 3 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or longer within a 24-hour period.
Key said districts should prioritize identifying people who test positive and make sure they stay home.
He said districts should also make sure people with symptoms get tested and stay home, and that "obvious contacts" of people who test positive stay home for the recommended quarantine period.
In a news release Monday, the Center for Health Improvement said a record 226 school districts, representing "97% of the state's 234 contiguous school districts," had 50 or more new cases per 10,000 residents within their boundaries over a recent two-week period.
It said 61 districts had 50-99 new cases per 10,000 residents, 110 had 100-199 new cases per 10,000 residents and 55 had 200 or more new cases per 10,000 residents.
The previous record for the number of districts with 50 or more new cases per 10,000 residents was 201, a number that was reached in January 2021 and in August.
During the most recent two-week period, ending Saturday, the highest rate was in the Nettleton School District in northeastern Arkansas.
It had 1,238 new cases, translating to a rate of 485 per 10,000 residents, or almost 5% of the district's population.
Among its other recommendations, the Center for Health Improvement called for school districts with 100 or more new cases per 10,000 residents to switch to virtual instruction and for mask requirements to be implemented in schools across the state.
"Because of the highly infectious omicron variant, COVID-19 is raging uncontrolled across our state," Dr. Joe Thompson, the center's CEO, said in the release.
"Unfortunately, we need to endure some temporary disruptions in our daily lives so we can stop the virus' spread."
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.
CASES BY COUNTY
Statewide, Pulaski County had the most new cases with 1,529 Tuesday, followed by Benton County with 552 and Washington County with 432.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 629,825.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said two of the deaths reported Tuesday happened in early December, and the rest occurred within the past month.
The Health Department reported that 31.6% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive over the seven-day span ending Monday, down slightly from a record 32.1% the week ending Sunday.
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 people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew Tuesday by 210, to 30,389.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on ventilators rose by 13, to 3,186.
The Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose Tuesday by 7,815, which was smaller by almost 1,600 than the daily increase a week earlier.
Booster shots made up 47% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 2,572, which was smaller by 713 than 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 7,932, which was still up from an average of 6,739 the previous week but down from more than 12,000 a day in early December.
The average for first doses fell to 2,669.
According to the CDC, 63.5% of Arkansans had received at least one dose as of Tuesday, and 51.7% had been fully vaccinated.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 33% had received booster doses.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas ranked 37th in the percentage of its residents 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, 74.5% of people had received at least one dose, and 62.6% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 36.7% had received booster doses.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.