Arkansas reported more than 2,000 new coronavirus cases Tuesday and its hospitalizations surpassed 1,000 as Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was considering calling lawmakers back to the Capitol to revisit the state’s ban on schools requiring face masks.
The state Department of Health reported virus cases rose by 2,052 to 378,023 total since the pandemic began, and the number of people in the hospital due to COVID-19 grew by 45 to 1,025. The state reported 10 new COVID-19 deaths.
The hospitalizations were the state’s highest since Jan. 27. The state reported 387 COVID-19 patients in intensive care and 205 on ventilators. Only 3% of the state’s intensive care unit beds and 20% of its hospital beds are available.
The state’s cases and hospitalizations have skyrocketed in recent weeks, fueled by the delta variant and Arkansas’ low vaccination rate. Arkansas ranks second in the country for new cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University research data.
Hutchinson, a Republican, met with the GOP leaders of the state House and Senate to discuss the possibility of calling a special session over the ban on school mask mandates. Hutchinson in April signed a state law banning mask requirements by local and state government entities, including public schools.
Hutchinson is facing growing calls to lift that ban, at least for schools, as cases and hospitalizations surge.
“A special session remains an option as we look for specific ways to assist our schools as we prepare for the next school year,” Hutchinson said in a statement after the meeting. “In the coming days, I will be evaluating options for legislative changes to Act 1002 that will give our schools more local control on meeting the health needs of the students as we enter a new school year in the face of the delta variant.”
Earlier Tuesday, Hutchinson indicated support for giving school districts the ability to decide whether to require masks but said lawmakers needed to hear from superintendents.
“Obviously, there’s a good argument that that’s the essence of local control, let a local school district decide,” he said at a town hall in Dumas on vaccinations.
Senate President Jimmy Hickey said he told colleagues a session was a possibility and was contacting them to see what actions they would support.
“Personally, I’m concerned about where we are with this new delta variant,” Hickey said.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said the special session discussion is focusing on schools, not revisiting the mask mandate ban beyond that.
“It’s going to be a discussion of what if anything needs to be done, what potential legislation would look like and all of that factors in to, what do the votes look like?” he said.
The state’s surge was overwhelming hospitals. Baxter Regional Medical Center described its situation as critical, reaching a new peak of 43 COVID-19 patients.
“Our ICU is full, with both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients,” the hospital said in a statement. “Our staff is weary, concerned for our community and desperate for this pandemic to end, but we continue to serve in extraordinary ways.
Arkansas Children’s Hospital said 24 children were hospitalized with COVID-19, the highest it has seen since the pandemic began. None of the hospitalized patients have been fully immunized, even though more than half were eligible, the hospital said in a statement.
“Arkansas Children’s appeals to families and the public to please vaccinate children who are eligible immediately,” Dr. Rick Barr, Arkansas Children’s executive vice president and its chief clinical officer, said in a statement. “We will continue to see more kids get sick quickly and the best ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 are by taking the vaccine, masking and social distancing.”
University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson tweeted that the hospital reached another new record for COVID-19 patients, with 75 in its care.
Hutchinson said he planned to meet with his COVID-19 task force to discuss ways to increase hospital capacity in the state.
The Arkansas Hospital Association said it strongly supports hospitals requiring all employees to be vaccinated against the virus. “Hospital employee vaccination against COVID-19 will maintain the long-term ability of our health care system to respond to the pandemic and to safely care for patients by protecting them from infection,” the association said.