Arkansas continues its upward trend of COVID-19 cases and deaths as officials fear another surge related to holiday gatherings.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday the state added 1,941 new coronavirus cases as well as 43 more deaths due to COVID-19. That brought the state’s death toll since the pandemic began to 3,338, and the total number of cases over 205,000.
Speaking in his weekly press briefing, Hutchinson urged Arkansans not to gather over the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
“We don't know what the rest of December's going to be like, we don't know what January is going to be like because we don't know what Christmas is going to be like,” Hutchinson said. “And with the Thanksgiving spike, in which I thought everybody tried real hard, but Christmas we're trying hard but if we're not successful then we're going to see another spike after Christmas and we have to be prepared for it.”
Hutchinson said 12,969 healthcare workers in Arkansas have already received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and the state has already received its allotment of more than 40,000 more doses intended for use next week. Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero implored Arkansans to get vaccinated once it becomes available to the general public.
“These vaccines have been studied well, they've been shown to be safe and efficacious, and I want you to consider receiving these vaccines sooner rather than later,” Romero said. “We are continuing to follow the safety of these vaccines post-administration. We know that we are seeing some cases of allergic reaction. As of last Sunday six such reactions occurred in this country. Those individuals all recovered.”
Romero says the state will distribute 17,700 doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine to pharmacies for use by residents and staffers of long-term care facilities. Currently only those groups, along with other healthcare and emergency service workers are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Arkansas.
Romero also urged COVID patients over the age of 65 to ask their healthcare provider about monoclonal antibodies, a type of drug which has been shown to improve health outcomes in older patients.
The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 rose by 25 Tuesday for a total of 1,103. Pulaski County saw the highest increase in new cases with 288 residents testing positive, followed by Washington County with 168 and Benton County with 153.
Hutchinson said the state plans to add another 124 hospital beds, including eight ICU beds, over the next two months.
“Even though it's going to take some time to build this out, we have to be ready for whatever comes in January. It is my hope that we will build this out and we will not have to utilize those beds for COVID patients. But it is prudent upon me as governor to make sure we have that adequate space if the need arises,” Hutchinson said.
The beds will be added at an existing Baptist Health System facility in Van Buren as well as in a conference center at the system’s medical center in Little Rock. Baptist Health CEO Troy Wells said, despite the increased capacity, hospitals are still struggling to address a shortage of nurses to care for COVID-19 patients.
“There's nursing staff then there’s that ancillary staff. The good news is the ancillary staff, we can stretch to cover more in existing hospitals where we’re expanding,” Wells said. “Nursing, we don't have that plan fully developed yet. We're working on that now both for these alternative care sites and, quite frankly, for the rest of the expandable surge plans the hospitals have here in Arkansas today.”
The governor also announced the state will require gatherings of more than 10 people to submit a plan to the Arkansas Department of Health for approval, though that doesn’t apply to retail, dining and other businesses.