Arkansas Virus Cases Rise By Nearly 2,000 As Surge Continues

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas' coronavirus cases rose by nearly 2,000 on Friday as the state's COVID-19 surge prompted the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to scale back its hospital visitor policy.

The Department of Health said the state's virus cases rose by 1,987 to 372,313 total since the pandemic began. The state's COVID-19 hospitalizations rose by 22 to 871, with 328 in intensive care and 159 on ventilators.

UAMS announced that beginning Monday it will change its visitation policy to limit patients to one visitor per day. Previously, patients could have multiple visitors a day as long as only one visitor was in the patient’s room at a time. UAMS said it will continue to allow additional visitors for end-of-life situations.

“We have already had one patient infected with COVID by a visitor," UAMS Medical Center CEO Dr. Steppe Mette said in a statement. “With the workforce shortage hospitals are facing now, we must minimize the risk of infection for our medical staff and care teams.”

UAMS will continue to require visitors to pass a daily health screening and wear a photo ID badge and a face mask. Hospital visitors will also be required to stay in the patient’s room at all times.

Arkansas continues to lead the country in new cases per capita, but has one of the lowest vaccination rates. The rolling average number of daily new cases has increased 115% over the past two weeks, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

Only 35.7% of the state's population has been fully vaccinated, compared to 48.9% nationally according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state's COVID-19 deaths increased by six to 6,041. Its active cases, meaning ones that don't include people who have died or recovered, increased by 1,005 to 13,784 total.

In central Arkansas, the Conway Fire Department warned that hospitals at or near capacity in the metro area along with increases in call volume were leading to longer than usual wait times for ambulances.

“The increase in hospitalizations and call volume are creating longer wait times for ambulance services," the fire department tweeted.

The surge in cases has prompted a group of Democratic lawmakers to call for the majority-Republican Legislature to meet to repeal a state law banning mask mandates by schools and other government entities. The top Democrat in the state Senate joined that call on Friday.

“The surge in COVID-19 cases, combined with the draconian provisions of Act 1002, are a recipe for disaster when students return to school," Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram said in a statement.

Hutchinson on Thursday said his focus is on increasing the state's vaccination rate, and legislative leaders have said they're continuing to have discussions with lawmakers about the issue.

Hutchinson said he was pleased by the 14,294 additional vaccine doses administered in the state since Thursday. But, with the increase in active cases and hospitalizations, Hutchinson said “we’re in a race to get more vaccines into arms before school starts."