The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 continues to decline, though new cases and deaths due to the coronavirus are steadily rising.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced an increase of 652 new coronavirus cases Thursday. That brings the state’s total to 51,766, while an additional nine Arkansans died for a death toll of 582. The number of Arkansans hospitalized decreased by 13 to 473, with 112 patients on a ventilator.
Speaking in the governor’s daily briefing on the pandemic, Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said the rate of both new cases and positive test results appears to be going down among children under the age of 18 as Arkansas students prepare to return to school in just over one week.
"It looks like we're having an influence on these curves of positivity in part from this mask mandate and we hope to see this continue downward. It will probably not completely disappear. There are cases now in the community, there will be cases in the community, there will be cases in school in the coming months, weeks," Romero said. "But we are prepared for that. We have a plan to investigate those patients that could have symptoms and to do contact tracing."
Schools in Arkansas are set to reopen for in-class instruction between Aug. 24 and 26. Romero said the state does not currently plan to have a dedicated group of people working to complete contact tracing of school-related cases.
"We have dedicated lines for the schools to reach us if they have questions, but it will be going into the [contact tracing] pool at this point. We have not segregated the school cases out of the general public," Romero said. "We think at this point, again it's a fluid situation, that we have more than enough contact tracers to follow up with these cases."
The state has also released a new document outlining best practices to avoid spreading COVID-19 in a school setting. Gov. Hutchinson said the Arkansas Ready to Learn Healthy School Guide was created from a partnership between the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Arkansas Department of Education and the state Health Department.
"This partnership was designed to look at how we can better prepare and communicate with our parents and our school families and our educators about how, from a scientific, medical standpoint, they can be best prepared for school,” Hutchinson said.
UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson said the guide doesn’t seek to justify the state’s decision to reopen schools for in-class instruction in just over one week.
"These documents are not meant to guide whether or not schools reopen… those are decisions that Gov. Hutchinson, [Education Secretary Johnny] Key and Secretary Romero will make. But this is guidance for people in our communities who are looking for guidance to be sure that, as we bring our kids back to school, we do that in the healthiest way possible," Patterson said.
Patterson said the guide was written over a two-week span by two groups of health and education officials as well as educators, parents and representatives from Black, Latinx and Marshallese communities. He said a second document focusing on student behavioral issues has not yet been released.
As of Thursday, Arkansas had 6,582 active COVID-19 cases, including 71 nursing home residents and 735 inmates of correctional facilities. The state received a total of 5,192 results of COVID-19 tests over the past 24 hours.