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Arkansas sets new daily record for virus cases, will buy 1.5 million home test kits

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaking to reporters Thursday during his weekly press briefing.

With nearly 5,000 new COVID-19 cases, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Thursday that the state had set a record for the highest one-day increase since the pandemic began. And with many people taking tests at home, health officials say the real number is even higher.

The new record surpassed one set nearly a year ago, but the Department of Health said the number of hospitalizations didn’t change from Wednesday. Hutchinson attributed that to the omicron variant not making people sick as quickly as the previous variant and more people being vaccinated which can keep infections from being more severe.

The Department of Health reported 4,978 new confirmed cases Thursday, which pushed the number of active cases up by 4,031 for a total of 18,644. Hutchinson noted the positivity rate for those being tested had grown to 19.7%, which is also the highest since the outbreak began. There were 18 additional deaths.

The previous record for the highest number of new daily cases was set on Jan. 1, when 4,304 cases were reported.

585 people were being treated at Arkansas hospitals on Thursday. The number of patients on ventilators declined by six since Wednesday to 104.

“With the huge volume of omicron cases, is that going to lead itself into an increase in hospitalizations? Likely, it will,” Hutchinson said during his weekly press conference. “We hope that it will not be near the level that we’ve seen before.”

He said hospitals added patient capacity during the previous surge, but the key challenge is a shortage of staff.

“We’ll see how that plays out. Obviously I’m hopeful and every hospital administrator and health care professional is hopeful that number stays flat,” Hutchinson said.

Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said he’s confident the surge in cases is from the omicron variant, which was first detected in the state two weeks ago. Most testing isn’t extensive enough to determine if a positive result comes from the omicron variant.

“We are seeing significant numbers of cases. The logical cause is omicron. We are adjusting our therapies and our recommendations for quarantine and isolation based on that fact,” Romero said.

Pulaski County led the state with 1,158 new cases Thursday, followed by Craighead with 439 and Faulkner with 283.

STATE TO DISTRIBUTE AT-HOME TESTS

The number of people being tested for COVID-19 at medical facilities was near the record on Thursday, Hutchinson said. The state reported 10,500 PCR tests and 3,527 antigen tests being administered.

At-home tests have been sold out at many pharmacies, prompting people to line up to be tested at medical facilities. To relieve the strain in-person testing has put on medical personnel, Hutchinson announced he had directed the Department of Health to buy 1.5 million rapid at-home tests, which will free up staff to focus on things like vaccinations and treating those who are sick, while letting people know as quickly as possible that they are infected.

“If we can utilize our rapid tests in a more efficient manner across the state then that will be a benefit in early detection, early action, and also relieving some of the burden on our health care workers,” Hutchinson said.

The tests will be distributed by the National Guard to residents for free at places like local libraries and public health units. Additional details will be worked out as the test kits are acquired, he said.

Given the national shortage of home tests, Hutchinson said that the state “has been very creative” in locating a supplier. He wouldn’t estimate when the tests will arrive but said they have been committed to be in Arkansas “in a short amount of time.”

The cost of the tests will be approximately $10 million, Hutchinson said, which will be covered by an existing COVID-19 response budget at the Department of Health.

IN-PERSON CLASSES TO RESUME

Schools are scheduled to resume next week after the holiday break and Hutchinson said it’s important that in-person classes continue.

“No we’re not stopping it, we’re not changing course, and I know this is a challenge to our educators, to our teachers, but I think it’s clear from our experience in the past that we have to be able to pursue the education,” Hutchinson said. “It’s so important to our future, to our students, to their mental health, as well as all the other activities that surround school.”  

He encouraged each school district to consider what is best given individual circumstances and said the Department of Health is on standby to provide guidance. Hutchinson said requiring masks is an option schools should consider and noted a ruling Wednesday by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox who said a law passed by the legislature this year banning mask mandates was unconstitutional. In August, Fox issued an order blocking it from going into effect until he could hold a hearing last month and issue a decision.

“Judge Fox’s ruling yesterday was very timely because that makes it clear without any doubt that the school districts have that ability to determine what is needed in their school environment to protect their students,” Hutchinson said.

NEW YEAR’S EVE CELEBRATIONS

With Friday being New Year’s Eve, the governor encouraged people to "be mindful of the fast-moving omicron variant." Hutchinson said he is maintaining his plans for the night.

“I’m going to be getting together with some friends that I know have been vaccinated in a controlled environment,” Hutchinson said. “I’m not cancelling everything in life, but I’m also mindful of omicron and the fact we do have a spike in cases.”

He encouraged gatherings to be limited to vaccinated people. If they’re not vaccinated, Hutchinson said everybody should wear a mask and practice social distancing.