Almost 13,000 new covid-19 cases were reported Thursday, setting a daily record for the seventh time in two weeks as the omicron variant surges through Arkansas.
With the 12,990 cases added Thursday, Arkansas has had a cumulative of 653,789 cases since the pandemic began.
Another 66 patients in hospitals had covid, bringing the total to 1,251.
"Today we saw a record in testing and a record number of new cases," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on social media. "At-home tests are being distributed around the state as they are received, and they're in high demand. We are expecting additional supplies based upon the state's purchase of at-home tests."
With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose to 79,348 -- the highest number since the first case in the pandemic was identified in Arkansas in March 2020.
The state's death toll from the virus since March 2020, as tracked by the Health Department, rose by 18 to 9,390.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said in an email that a second shipment of rapid tests was distributed Thursday.
Testing continued to be high with 21,555 tests reported Thursday. Since the beginning of January, more than 230,000 tests have been reported, compared with about 100,000 reported during the same time period last month.
The current positivity rate of the tests is at 32.1%, Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said.
Dillaha said it is difficult to communicate the seriousness of the surge to the public and its impact on the health care system.
"The thing that is different with the omicron variant is that many people believe that it only causes 'mild' illness, when in fact it also leads to severe illness that puts many people in the hospital," she said.
Many people are no longer taking steps like wearing masks or social distancing to decrease their risk of spreading the virus to others or to avoid getting infected themselves, Dillaha said.
"And this is at a time when our supply of treatment options is much diminished compared to treatments that were available when the delta variant was dominant. It would be much better if people in our communities could hold off on making such changes until the supply of medications becomes much more plentiful in the next few months," she said.
"I am also concerned that we do not know the long-term complications that can result from illness due to covid-19 and that many people will consequently regret their decisions to drop their vigilance in preventing the spread of the omicron variant," she said.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center had 80 covid-19 patients Thursday, a new record, Chancellor Cam Patterson said in a social media post.
He wasn't surprised that the state had nearly 13,000 new cases, he said.
"We also have 735 employees off work with COVID infection or exposure, so staffing patients is very difficult and we are cutting back services in many areas," he said. "Get vaxxed."
Of the more than 1,200 hospitalized patients Thursday, 351 were in intensive care units, marking the highest number in nearly four months. Of those patients, 170 were on ventilators.
Even with adding 17 beds to the state's inventory -- bringing it to 8,696 beds -- the number of available hospital beds dropped by 61 to 1,677.
An additional 12 ICU beds were added around the state, bringing the total to 1,144. Only 32 -- or less than 3% -- are available for new patients.
The number of available ventilators in the state, which has been steadily declining since Jan. 7, dropped by 11 Thursday to 675 -- or 61% of the state's total inventory of 1,107 ventilators.
Baptist Health spokeswoman Cara Wade said past virus surges have shown them how to meet challenges like dealing with supply chain issues and backups for needed medications.
"Throughout the pandemic, we certainly have become more efficient as well with testing and how to do it on a large scale," Wade said. "However, each surge still comes with new challenges that we have to adjust our operations around."
What's different with the current surge, she said is the large number of staffers being affected personally with the omicron variant.
About 540 of the more than 11,000 Baptist Health employees are off work for covid-19- related issues, including 325 employees who tested positive for the virus, Wade said.
"The other difference right now is the large percentage of people getting sick in our communities," Wade said. "The high number of patients testing positive has the possibility to overwhelm the hospitals even more now than the other surges. While omicron is relatively milder, we are still having patients admitted every day and patients placed on ventilators every day."
Mitchell Nail, spokesman for St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, said about 4% of the staff there is out because of the pandemic.
"Some in administrative positions are still able to work remotely, so covid's greatest impacts relate to clinical and support staff who must be on-site to accomplish their duties," Nail said.
The hospital is well-versed in scaling up and down to accommodate patient volumes because of lessons learned in past surges, Nail said.
"Also, with this latest influx of covid-positive patients, we're better equipped to protect our team from contracting the virus, thanks to robust PPE supplies," Nail said. "For example, we have offered N95 masks and protective eye wear to any team member who wishes to wear them while working."
Arkansas Children's Hospital has 277 employees off work because of covid-19-related issues, with about 170 employees who tested positive for covid-19, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
Dr. Jessica Snowden, chief of pediatric infectious disease at Arkansas Children's and UAMS, said the hospital is meeting the challenges by streamlining treatment pathways for inpatients and outpatients so the hospital can quickly adjust to new information and get patients treated as efficiently and as effectively as possible.
"We're also benefiting from communication strategies for keeping our teams and the community up to date with rapidly changing information," Snowden said.
Arkansas Children's Hospital is caring for 31 covid-positive pediatric patients across its system with three patients in ICU and three on ventilators, DeMillo said.
Across the state, there are 20,226 active covid-19 cases in children ranging in age from newborn to 18 years old.
The majority of the active pediatric cases are in Central Arkansas with 1,859, followed by the the state's northeast with 1,279, Northwest with 902, southwest with 446 and the southeast with 369.
Children with the omicron infections are experiencing a wide range of symptoms, similar to earlier variants -- including fatigue, headache, body aches, fever, cough and gastrointestinal symptoms, Snowden said.
"In addition, we are observing some symptoms more commonly now such as sore throat, sneezing and rashes," she said. "Overall, while many children are being admitted to the hospital with covid-19 across the country, infections with omicron seem to be less severe than with the delta variant, although that is still being studied."
Unvaccinated children and teens are more likely to have serious illness and be hospitalized, Snowden added.
Of the 131,972 total cases in Arkansas children for ages newborn to 18 years old, 84.5% were unvaccinated, according Health Department data.
Since the pandemic began, 1,053 Arkansas children and teens from newborn to 18 years old have been hospitalized, with 138 admitted to the ICU.
Four have died from the disease.
"Getting vaccinated and boosted if you are eligible is the best way to prevent a serious infection," Snowden said.
The state Department of Health issued a report Thursday showing that 227 school districts and charter schools -- out of the state's total of 261 traditional school districts and charter schools -- have at least five active cases of covid.
Active cases of students and staffers totaled 11,882, compared with Tuesday's report, which said 6,064 students and staffers had active cases. Tuesday's report also said 197 districts and charter schools had at least five active cases.
Thursday's report also said that among private schools with at least five active cases, 27 schools had 567 cases.
Twenty-two colleges and universities with at least five active cases had 575 cases.
The districts with the most active cases were: Bryant with 448, Bentonville with 427 and Little Rock with 420.
The number of vaccine doses that providers reported having administered rose by 9,125 to 3,795,476.
The number of individuals fully immunized increased by 1,933, to a total of 1,523,696, or 53.6%, of Arkansans ages 5 years and older. The number of Arkansans partially immunized against the virus increased by 977, to 367,272, or 12.9%, of the population ages 5 years and older.
As of Thursday, 479,422 third vaccine doses had been administered.
"Widespread booster vaccine availability greatly helps prevent breakthrough cases," Nail said. "Should a breakthrough case occur with a boosted person, it often leads to a less severe infection, helping our hospitals."
Of the active cases Thursday, 61.1% were not fully vaccinated, according to Health Department data.
The Health Department is continuing to provide education to vaccination providers and arranging vaccination clinics in community locations around the state to increase vaccination rates, Dillaha said.
Pulaski County had the most new cases with 1,878 Thursday, followed by Washington County with 1,453 and Benton County with 946.