For the first time since the pandemic began, Arkansas is releasing the number of students, teachers and staff of the state’s schools and colleges who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced an increase of 722 new coronavirus cases, bringing the state’s total to 58,745, while an additional seven COVID-19 deaths brought the death toll to 739.
Speaking in his daily briefing on the pandemic Thursday, Hutchinson said there are currently 222 active COVID-19 cases among students and staff of all schools, colleges and universities in Arkansas.
"This is a number really before school activity has started. I mean if there was an infection, the students would have got that outside of the school activities for it to be a statistic right now," Hutchinson said. "I expect that number to go up, but we will see."
A total of 544 public school students and employees have tested positive for the coronavirus since June 15, as have 108 students and staffers of colleges and universities in Arkansas. Those numbers will be available on the Health Department’s website and only represent school districts that have had at least five positive cases.
Hutchinson said the state will use case data to better respond to the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
"That’s obviously helpful information to know the response level. We look at what's in the community in terms of community spread but then we'll also look at the data in the specific school, and also particularly how it impacts staff. And that will help the decision makers to know what kind of response action should be taken," Hutchinson said.
The data will be updated twice-weekly on the Arkansas Department of Health website. Education Secretary Johnny Key said he wasn’t shocked to learn the extent of COVID-19’s spread in schools.
"We've had school activities that have been back open to some degree since the summer, mainly in athletics and the band and activities of that nature. So that number, when you spread out around the state, it's not that surprising," Key said.
Schools in Arkansas opened for in-class instruction earlier this week, though some were forced to delay the start of the school year over coronavirus concerns.
The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 fell by two Thursday to 433, with 99 patients on a ventilator. Pulaski County saw 64 residents test positive, with Benton and Sebastian counties each adding 37 new cases.
As of Thursday Arkansas had 5,341 active cases of COVID-19.