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Arkansas reports 39 COVID deaths, will stop requiring contact tracing at schools

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Health Secretary José Romero and Education Secretary Johnny Key enter Tuesday's press conference.

Arkansas reported 39 additional deaths Tuesday from COVID-19, while the number of active cases continued falling sharply. Health officials have said hospitalizations and deaths lag a couple of weeks behind new infections.

“Very sadly, of course the greatest lagging indicator are the deaths,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during his weekly press conference.

Not including a day when hundreds of deaths were recategorized as COVID-related in October, it was the highest number of deaths reported in a single day since Sept. 27. The death toll has risen to 9,667 since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Hutchinson said 85% of those involved people had not been vaccinated.

Health Secretary Dr. José Romero noted that while the current omicron variant has less severe health effects than the previous delta variant, the volume of cases because of easier transmission of the virus is the key factor now.

“When you are infecting hundreds of thousands of individuals, you’re going to have an increase in the number of deaths. So this is the outcome of this infection in our community, the inability to bring it under control by vaccination or by appropriate use of masking,” Romero said. “We will see more deaths and significant numbers of deaths in the coming days. This is not over yet.”

The Department of Health on Tuesday reported 4,637 new cases of people testing positive for the virus. With recoveries outpacing new cases or deaths, the number of active cases fell by 5,914 to 57,392 people. That continues a solid trend of declines since the state peaked with 102,576 active cases on Jan. 22, dropping by 45,184 people.

Despite more people now using at-home tests and not all positive cases likely being reported, Hutchinson said he’s confident the decline in cases is real.

“We recognize that there’s many that are at-home tests that we’re not getting information [about], but that’s always been the case,” Hutchinson said. “You can see the trendline and you can also see that reflected in the positivity rate, and that’s confirmed by the hospitalizations as well.”

The number of people hospitalized dropped by four, but remains relatively high at 1,711 statewide. There were eight fewer patients on ventilators.

CONTACT TRACING AT SCHOOLS

Hutchinson announced public schools in Arkansas will no longer be required to conduct contact tracing or quarantine students who were potentially exposed to infected people. He said it’s no longer practical with the current number of cases in the state, but that local districts and schools can still take those actions.

Education Secretary Johnny Key said the precautions have unnecessarily kept students from being able to attend classes.

“One of the difficulties and the challenges that schools have experienced when they have issues or identified students to be quarantined, those students many times never get sick,” Key said.

Officials continue encouraging parents to vaccinate eligible children who are 5 and older. Romero also said he’s encouraged that vaccines might soon be available for children between the ages of 6 months and 4-years-old.

Michael Hibblen is News Director of UA Little Rock Public Radio. A 34-year radio veteran, he oversees the KUAR News staff, plans coverage and edits stories while also reporting and anchoring newscasts.