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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson discusses a chart showing the percentage of ICU beds being used by COVID-19 patients as Cam Patterson (right), chancellor of University of Arkansas for Medical Science, looks on during a press conference on Friday, Nov. 20, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

There were 27 new COVID-19 cases reported in Union County by the Arkansas Department of Health on Friday, bringing the cumulative total of cases identified locally to 1,420. The cases in the county included 1,219 confirmed cases, up 23 from Thursday, and 201 probable cases, up four from Thursday.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests that determine confirmed cases are more sensitive than the antigen tests that determine probable cases.

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Union County was higher than it’s ever been before on Friday. There were 115 active cases in the county, up 17 from Thursday and representing 8.1% of all the cases identified locally. The active cases in Union County Friday included 82 confirmed cases and 33 probable cases. There were 1,249 Union County residents considered recovered from the virus, up 10 from Thursday.

A report on COVID-19 cases in educational institutions in the state, produced by the ADH on Nov. 19, showed new cases identified in several local school districts since the last report from Nov. 16.

According to the report, there were 18 active cases in the El Dorado School District on Nov. 19, up six from Monday. In total, 66 cases have been identified in the ESD, up 12 from Monday and including 28 cases in staff or faculty and 37 cases in students.

In the Parkers Chapel School District, there were 11 active cases on Nov. 19. Altogether, 17 cases have been identified in the PCSD, including five in staff or faculty and 11 in students, according to the report.

There were also 11 active cases in the Smackover-Norphlet School District, up three from Monday. The cumulative number of cases in the SNSD also increased by three from Monday, reaching 40 including nine in staff and faculty and 30 in students. The SNSD was closed to in-person instruction this week, and will not resume on-site learning until Nov. 30, after the Thanksgiving holiday.

No new local deaths attributable to COVID-19 were reported Friday. Fifty-six Union County residents have died as a result of the virus. In the Southwest hospital region of Arkansas, where Union County is situated, 145 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 on Friday, including 57 in intensive care units and 24 on ventilator support.

Alexandria Bennett, executive director of business development at the Medical Center of South Arkansas, said nine COVID patients are currently being treated at MCSA. The hospital has created a dedicated ward for COVID patients, which includes ICU services and pulmonary telemedicine.

“Our hospital remains prepared to care for patients needing medical care, whether for COVID-19 or another medical condition. We are extremely proud of the many ways our staff and physicians have risen to the challenges presented by COVID-19,” Bennett said in an email to the News-Times. “They continue to work tirelessly to care for our patients, each other and our community. Each of them deserves our endless gratitude.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson held a press conference Friday where he and guests including ADH Secretary Dr. Jose Romero, UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson and Washington Regional President and CEO Larry Shackelford addressed decreasing hospital capacity statewide.

Hutchinson began the press conference with an update on cases and hospital space throughout the state. He said that statewide, 10.23% of hospital beds are occupied by COVID patients; 24.62% of ICU beds are occupied by COVID patients; and 37.25% of ventilators are being used by COVID patients. In the Southwest hospital region, those numbers go up, significantly in some cases: 11.94% of hospital beds are occupied by COVID patients; 43.18% of ICU beds are occupied by COVID patients; and 48.98% of ventilators are being used by COVID patients.

“It shows that we have a lot of other health needs in Arkansas besides COVID that we have to manage, but that COVID is what is occupying a significant percent of the metrics,” Hutchinson said. “Every region has a different look, and you cannot just simply look at it by region, you’ve got to look at it by statewide when you’re trying to manage these resources.”

Patterson, who sits on the governor’s Winter COVID-19 Task Force and chairs the resources subcommittee formed by the group, said the state is issuing new guidelines as a result of a recommendation from the subcommittee for essential health care workers returning to work after a COVID diagnosis or exposure.

He said that while directives for non-health care workers to isolate for 10 days after a COVID diagnosis or quarantine for 14 days after a COVID exposure will not change, essential health care workers will be asked to have a PCR test within five to seven days of exposure, and, should they test negative, will be allowed to return to work with “enhanced precautions.”

If a hospital is “in desperate need” of bedside caregivers, workers infected with COVID will be permitted to work on the condition that they are asymptomatic, only treating COVID patients and are segregated from employees who do not have COVID, Patterson said.

“Those extreme conditions don’t currently exist,” Patterson said. “We hope they never exist.”

MCSA CEO Scott Street sits on the resources subcommittee with Patterson, as well as the statewide bed coordination planning subcommittee. Bennett said the subcommittees are meeting daily to “strategically discuss preparing health care facilities for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients across the state.”

“We are very fortunate to have a governor that is extremely engaged and concerned for Arkansans during this pandemic,” Street said.

Romero shared new CDC guidelines and reiterated ADH recommendations for Thanksgiving. He suggested people limit travel during the holiday season, not gather with people who live outside their households and refrain from bringing loved ones residing in nursing homes to their homes for the holiday, adding that some nursing homes are imposing quarantine rules for residents who leave for Thanksgiving.

“We have beds at this time, but as you all know, in the previous holidays … we’ve seen surges in the number of cases that occur afterwards. We are at a high level of occupancy,” Romero said. “We still have room, but that number can increase if we don’t abide by the three W’s: wear your mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.”

Shackelford said he is chairing the Winter Task Force’s subcommittee considering ways to reduce community spread of the virus. He reiterated the importance of abiding by COVID-19 recommendations and guidelines, noting that at Washington Regional, there’s been a 40% increase in the number of COVID patients needing inpatient care in just the last two weeks.

“I want you to understand that where we are today, we do have capacity to not only take care of COVID patients but to take care of other patients that need care; but it’s important that we act now,” he said. “If we see two weeks from today the same kinds of increases that we’ve seen following other (holidays) then we are going to be at a point that it will be challenging to meet those needs.”

Hutchinson announced that the state will expedite the licensure of 1,104 nursing students scheduled to graduate this semester, and he hopes to also be able to waive their application fees. Graduating nursing students will be able to be licensed within 24 hours of applying, he said.

“We need to get those nurses on board quickly. We need them to help relieve some of the challenges that we face,” he said. “The fact that we will expedite that will make it easier for those nurses to enter the profession at a time when their talents — their heart — is needed.”

The announcement comes one day after the ADH imposed an 11 p.m. closing time on all restaurants, bars and private clubs in Arkansas with on-premise alcohol permits.

The ADH reported 270 new negative test results returned from Union County Friday, indicating a one-day local positivity rate of 9.1% based on the number of new cases and results reported. In all, 15,108 COVID-19 test results have returned from Union County, including 13,688 negatives, indicating an overall local positivity rate of 9.4%.

The cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas rose to 141,916 Friday, up 2,061 from Thursday. The cases in the state Friday included 125,783 confirmed cases, up 1,618 from Thursday, and 16,133 probable cases, up 443 from Thursday.

Active cases reached a new high in Arkansas on Friday, growing by 362 to reach 17,360; they represented 12.2% of all the cases identified in the state. The active cases in Arkansas Friday included 13,264 confirmed cases and 4,096 probable cases. There were 122,219 Arkansans considered recovered from the virus Friday, up 1,674 from Thursday.

The deaths of 24 Arkansans were reported Friday, bringing the state’s death toll to 2,321, indicating a state COVID mortality rate of 1.6%. There were 928 Arkansans hospitalized Friday afternoon, including 359 in ICUs and 146 on ventilator support.

The ADH reported 18,478 COVID-19 test results returned to the department between Thursday and Friday, indicating a one-day positivity rate for the state of 11.2% based on the number of new cases and results reported. Since the state began testing for COVID-19, 1,678,657 results have returned to the ADH, including 1,533,776 negatives, indicating an overall positivity rate for the state of 8.5%.

At 3:15 p.m. Friday, Johns Hopkins reported 11,833,644 COVID-19 cases in the United States. Of those, 4,410,709 people were considered recovered, leaving 7,169,166 cases — 60.6% — active nationwide. There had been 253,769 deaths attributable to the virus in the U.S. by Friday afternoon, indicating a national COVID mortality rate of 2.1%.

Johns Hopkins reported 57,343,535 COVID-19 cases worldwide Friday afternoon. Of those, 36,705,473 people were considered recovered, leaving 19,269,433 cases — 33.6% — active around the world. There had been 1,368,629 deaths attributable to the virus by Friday afternoon, indicating a global COVID mortality rate of 2.4%.

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