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Active cases double in a week as omicron continues to spread

by Caitlan Butler | January 12, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.
Governor Hutchinson addresses the media during his weekly press conference on Arkansas' response to COVID-19 on Tuesday, Jan. 11. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

"Omicron is here. It is here, it is raging across Arkansas," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during his weekly COVID-19 update. "The message is clear. Get vaccinated, and if you're not vaccinated, wear a mask to protect yourself and others."

Hutchinson's report on COVID spread in the state was grim this week, as he noted a rapid rise in cases, active cases and hospitalizations.

"Right now, active cases have doubled since last week; one week ago, we were at 32,000, today we're at over 64,000 active cases. Hospitalizations have increased by 373 since last week; now, we have over 1,100 hospitalized with COVID. Pediatric hospitalizations ... have increased this month; we have 50 this month so far, as compared to 41 last month, total, and, of course, we're only on the 11th day of this month," the governor said on Tuesday.

However, Hutchinson warned against panicking or advocating for drastic measures.

"What we can't do in Arkansas is to close down in-classroom instruction in our schools. It is critically important for the well-being of our young people -- for their mental health, for their development, for their education and for the stability in life that in-classroom instruction provides. The second thing we can't do is we can't argue for shelter in place for families with unvaccinated children. Can you imagine if you've got a nurse that is told they need to shelter in place because they have unvaccinated children?" he said. "And thirdly, you can't stop living. You can't be calling for suspension of public interactions. That's not where we are in our society today, and that's not what we need to get through this."

The state is taking several actions to address the rise in hospitalizations, the high demand for COVID testing and the difficulties school districts are facing due to COVID spread on their campuses.


Hutchinson said the state would be adding 265 hospital beds for COVID patients with a $50 million appropriation.

"I had the mark of 1,000 when action would be taken; now we've taken that action and that should assure us of having space into the next week or so, anyway, in terms of hospital capacity, and we will take action as needed beyond that," he said.

On Tuesday, 1,148 Arkansans were hospitalized due to COVID, including 163 in the southwest hospital region of the state, where Union County is located. Lisa Antoon, Medical Center of South Arkansas marketing director, said 23 people were being treated for COVID there on Tuesday.

Hutchinson noted that not everyone who is counted as a COVID hospital patient first went to the hospital for COVID. He said a survey of COVID hospital patients on a given day showed that about 30% first went to the hospital for some reason other than COVID, but tested positive during their stay.

"In other words, they went to the hospital for another reason and tested positive for COVID even though they might not have been symptomatic," he said. "If someone is in the hospital for some other reason, they still have to be treated as a COVID patient with PPE (personal protective equipment), hospitals have to have a level of isolation, so they do count as COVID patients, but it's important to understand that distinction."

The total number of COVID hospitalizations in the state currently still trails highs hit during the case surge last summer caused by the delta variant, when more than 1,400 hospitalizations were reported several times; however, Hutchinson said he expects the number of Arkansans hospitalized due to COVID to continue rising.

"We'll probably continue to have an increase in hospitalizations over the next week," he said.


Hutchinson said the state has started distribution of free at-home COVID tests which were ordered several weeks ago and which he said would be delivered in batches as supply allows over the coming weeks. Of the 1.5 million tests the state ordered, 211,000 had been delivered by Tuesday afternoon.

Several locations in Union County have free at-home antigen tests provided by the state available for local residents to pick up while supplies last.

According to the ADH, at-home tests are available at the Barton Library, 200 E. 5th in El Dorado; El Dorado City Hall, 204 N. West Ave in El Dorado; Harper Memorial Library, 300 N. Myrtle in Junction City; Smackover Public Library, 700 N. Broadway in Smackover; Huttig Public Library, 204 Frost St. in Huttig; and First Baptist Church of Huttig, 203 12th St. in Huttig.

While testing supplies are available, individuals are able to take one free test kit, which contains two tests, while families can take three kits, which contain six total tests.

"It is important to note that if you have symptoms on a test very early, you need to follow that with a second test... Be sure that you double up on that and double check yourself a day or two later to make sure you haven't become positive. Use your masks until then," Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Romero said on Tuesday. "It's also very important that if you test positive, you follow the CDC recommendations for quarantine; so knowing that you're positive, you then remove yourself from the community so that you don't spread the virus outside."

Romero also recommended that everyone wear masks in public for the time being.

"Anyone going out in public should be using a mask at this time. That is the safest way to protect yourself, even if you're vaccinated and even more-so if you're not," he said.

Also, Hutchinson said Arkansas National Guardsmen had been deployed to hospitals and other testing sites across the state to assist with PCR testing efforts in light of the high demand.

COVID in schools

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key announced on Tuesday that some reporting requirements for school districts would be lifted for the duration of the current surge in cases. He said school districts don't need to report probable close contacts -- COVID exposures -- for the time being, except when the contact happened during an activity when the possibility of virus transmission, such as while playing sports without a mask, is very high.

El Dorado School District Superintendent Jim Tucker said he sits on an advisory board that recommended the change to Key this morning.

"It's just less paperwork for our point-of-contact that reports to the state," he explained. "Everything else stays the same... We still contact trace, we just don't have to report it all to the state."

Tucker said the change does lift a large burden off the district's point-of-contact, who he said will "definitely" have a lighter workload. He said the district had been considering hiring a second point-of-contact before Tuesday's announcement.

According to a report on active COVID cases in schools produced by the ADH on Monday, every school district in Union County was facing some degree of virus spread as of Jan. 10.

According to the report, on Monday, the ESD -- the county's largest school district -- reported 14 active cases among students and staff; the Smackover-Norphlet School District reported 36 active cases; the Parkers Chapel School District reported 20 active cases; the Strong-Huttig School District reported nine active cases; and the Junction City School District reported eight active cases.

Since the 2021/2022 school year started, the ESD has reported 186 total cases identified among students and staff, including 138 in students and 35 in staff and faculty; the SNSD has reported 129 total cases, including 102 in students and 21 in staff and faculty; the PCSD has reported 95 total cases, including 74 in students and 15 in staff and faculty; the JCSD has reported 49 total cases, including 39 in students and 10 in staff and faculty; and the SHSD has reported 12 total cases.

South Arkansas Community College was also included in the report with 14 active cases as of Monday and 55 total cases since the school year started.

Also, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, a health policy center, COVID-19 spread has been very high throughout Union County over the past two weeks. The ACHI's weekly report shows the number of new cases per 10,000 residents within each public school district in Arkansas over the two week-period preceding the report's publication.

More than 200 cases per 10,000 residents of the ESD area were identified from Dec. 25 through Jan. 8, according to the report, and between 100 and 199 were identified per 10,000 residents of the SNSD, PCSD, JCSD and SHSD's areas.

Tucker said he hopes to avoid moving the ESD to virtual instruction. On Tuesday, the absentee rate for ESD students was 21%.

"But even if we go up to, say, a 40% absentee rate with students, we still have 60% of students at school, and in my opinion, it's better to have 60% at school than 100% at home," Tucker said.

He said El Dorado High School has faced some challenges with staffing, due both to teacher illness and scheduled trainings, but that those have been worked out through the rest of the week and that the issue will be revisited if there is still a problem following the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday on Monday.

During the governor's update, Dr. Romero highlighted the potential long-term complications that could be caused by COVID-19.

"With regard to children, I want to stress that this is not a benign disease. We're learning more and more about this disease and its long-term complications. Last week, a report by the CDC showed that children that had COVID are at a greater risk for developing diabetes mellitus -- that is, sugar in the blood that requires insulin use," he said.

Romero urged parents to seriously consider vaccination for their children.

"Parents need to take (long-term health effects of COVID) into account when deciding when and if to vaccinate their children," he said. "I have to say, unfortunately, in our state, only 10.3% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 are fully vaccinated, so we have a long way to go."

Local cases

Local nursing homes have also reported COVID-19 cases in workers and residents. According to a report produced by the ADH on Tuesday, all five nursing homes in Union County have reported recent positive cases to the state.

Advanced Health and Rehab reported one resident case and five worker cases, according to the report. Courtyard Healthcare and Rehabilitation reported seven worker cases. Hudson Memorial Nursing Home reported four active cases. At Oak Ridge Health and Rehab, five workers had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday.

Timberlane Health and Rehab reported the most cases, with one active resident case and 16 active worker cases as of Tuesday, according to the ADH report.

From Wednesday, Jan. 5, through Tuesday, 461 new COVID-19 cases were identified in Union County and the local positivity rate for that period was 26.9%, meaning that more than a quarter of people who were tested for the virus last week came back positive.


Hutchinson strongly urged Arkansans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 during his update on Tuesday.

"The best solution is to get vaccinated. While that does not eliminate every possibility of you being infected, it does diminish, greatly, that chance and it does diminish the chance of hospitalization or severe illness from it," he said.

The governor also noted that most new COVID cases (71.9%), hospitalizations (85.9%), and deaths (84.7%) were in unvaccinated people. Only 7,815 vaccine doses were administered to Arkansans between Monday and Tuesday.

"With this level of increase, this level of spread of omicron, that number needs to be higher. I can only think that the public sees this as not as worrisome as delta, and there is some truth to that, but if you want your schools to operate, if you want people to be able to work, it helps us to increase the vaccination rate in Arkansas," he said.

"We need to take the ... precautions that I've identified, including getting vaccinated. That is important," Hutchinson added. "The message is simple: get vaccinated."

Several vaccine clinics are scheduled in the coming weeks in Union County. The COVID vaccines are free and one does not need health insurance to get one.

The clinics are scheduled for Monday, Jan. 24, from 10 a.m. to noon at First Baptist Church - Cordell, 612 Cordell Ave. and from 5 to 7 p.m. at New Olive Branch Baptist Church, 1548 N. Roselawn Ave.; Wednesday, Jan. 26, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Douglas Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, 969 Smackover Hwy.; Friday, Jan. 28, from 3 to 6 p.m. at Abundant Life Ministries & Family Worship Center, 501 W. Block St.; and Monday, Feb. 28, from 5 to 7 p.m. at New Olive Branch.

photo El Dorado School District Superintendent Jim Tucker
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According to the ADH, COVID-19 vaccines are available at the following health care clinics in Union County:

- I Can Nursing, LLC: 267 Union Rd. 81, Mount Holly; 870-315-5921

- Walmart: 2730 N. West Ave., El Dorado; 870-862-4866

- Brookshire Pharmacy #48: 2202 N. West Ave., El Dorado; 870-864-0107

- Genoa Healthcare: 715 N. College Ave. Ste. P1, El Dorado; 870-639-6227

- South Arkansas Womens Clinic, PLC: 706 W. Grove St., El Dorado; 870-863-8444

- Medical Center of South Arkansas: 700 W. Grove St., El Dorado; 870-863-2000

- Walgreen Co.: 701 W. Grove St., El Dorado; 870-881-8434

- South Arkansas Dialysis: 620 W. Grove St., El Dorado; 870-862-8788

- CSS Healthcare, LLC: 205 W. Faulkner St., El Dorado; 870-639-3910

- Dr. Ray Pediatrics: 403 W. Oak Ste. 201, El Dorado; 870-862-8221

- Brookshire Pharmacy #40: 220 S. West Ave., El Dorado; 870-863-7996

- Melvins Discount Pharmacy, 828 W. Hillsboro, El Dorado; 870-863-4155

- SAMA Healthcare Services: 600 S. Timberlane, El Dorado; 870-862-2400

- Access Medical Clinic El Dorado: 2280 E. Main St., El Dorado; 870-444-5216

- Union County Health Unit: 301 American Rd., El Dorado; 870-863-5101

- Clean Harbors: 309 American Rd., 870-863-7173

- Life Touch Hospice: 2301 Champagnolle Rd., El Dorado; 870-862-0337

- Strong Clinic: 253 S. Concord, Strong; 870-797-7620

Print Headline: Active cases double in a week as omicron continues to spread


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