More than 2,000 Arkansans have tested positive for the coronavirus since last Friday as the state nears 500 deaths from COVID-19.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Monday the state saw 787 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 44,597. An additional 11 Arkansans died from COVID-19 for a death toll of 475.
Speaking in his daily briefing on the pandemic, Hutchinson again voiced his support for schools reopening statewide at the end of the month, despite the state’s average rate of positive COVID-19 tests being over the 10% recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"In terms of the positivity rates, it's not where I would like it to be, and I hope when school starts it’s not there. But if you look across the state it varies county by county, and I met with the [American] Academy of Pediatrics here, the Arkansas chapter this last week, we discussed that, and they recognize that there's areas that have a lower positivity rate there shouldn't even be a question about," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said the state has received half of its order for 200 point-of-care machines used for antigen testing, though the materials needed to complete tests have not yet arrived. He said those machines will be sent to the Health Department’s Public Health Units across the state, and that K-12 students and educators will be given top priority for testing.
Unlike the polymerase chain reaction or PCR tests usually used to diagnose COVID-19, antigen tests look for proteins found in the coronavirus instead of genetic material. Antigen tests are generally faster to produce a result, but are seen as less reliable than PCR tests.
Despite the need for a follow-up PCR test to confirm a coronavirus infection, Hutchinson said the antigen testing machines will help track the spread of COVID-19 once schools reopen the week of Aug. 24.
"It's difficult for a state like Arkansas to say we're going to open here and there and others [are] just going to be virtual and then you have a lot of issues that go along with that," Hutchinson said. "So I want our state to be able to move, at least at the beginning, altogether in classroom instruction. If we have to adapt and adjust from that down the road, we’ll adjust with the circumstances we find ourselves in."
After falling short of its goal to complete 200,000 coronavirus tests in July, Hutchinson said the state is aiming to complete 190,000 PCR tests and 10,000 antigen tests in August.
With the start of flu season just months away, Acting Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero urged Arkansans to get vaccinated to avoid adding to the stress on the state’s healthcare system already caused by COVID-19.
"We know that there's a press on our emergency rooms during influenza season. One way to decompress that is to try to get people immunized against it, and again these individuals that develop severe influenza become hospitalized, they can wind up in our intensive care units, use intensive care beds and may require ventilators which we will need for COVID," Romero said.
Flu season in Arkansas typically lasts from October through May, though Romero says Arkansans should begin getting vaccinated now.
"We start vaccinating against influenza this time of year, and we go forward. This year I want to stress the importance of influenza vaccine for everyone," Romero said. "There are a significant number of deaths each year from influenza. We don't know what the confluence of influenza infection and COVID will be."
The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 dropped by two to 513 total, with 108 on a ventilator. Sebastian County saw the highest increase in new cases with 87 residents testing positive, followed by Washington County with 66 and Pulaski County with 54.
As of Monday Arkansas had 6,882 active COVID-19 cases, including 80 nursing home residents and 392 inmates of correctional facilities.