Hospital administrators, doctors, and others in the health care industry in Arkansas have been warning for weeks that the COVID-19 patients they are treating lately are younger and sicker than the ones they treated earlier in the pandemic, largely as a result of the increased presence of the rapidly spreading delta variant in the state.
On Tuesday, Arkansas Secretary of Health Jose Romero shared some data to back up those claims.
Romero told reporters at a press conference held Tuesday that nearly 19% of active cases of the virus in the state are currently among children under 18.
“Between April and July of this year, there has been a 517% increase in the number of cases under 18 years of age,” he said.
Half of those children come from the under 12 group that is not yet eligible for a vaccine.
“There’s nearly a 690% increase in cases in children 12 and under,” he said.
Romero said that hospitalizations among children 18 and under are up 270% in recent weeks, with ICU admissions among children also up 275%. 20% of those individuals are under 12, he said.
“I think these numbers exemplify and bring out a very sobering aspect of the pandemic in our state,” he said. “We have a group of individuals that are extremely susceptible to infection because they do not have eligibility for a vaccine.
Romero said only 32.2% of children between 12 and 18 currently eligible to receive a vaccine have had at least one dose, and only 18.4% are considered fully vaccinated.
“I share this number with you so that we can increase our immunization numbers among those who can receive it, and that we can encourage the use of masking,” Romero said. “As the governor said, we do not have a (mask) mandate, but I clearly recommend this for children going to school.”
Wednesday’s special legislative session to address mask mandate ban, unemployment opt-out
The governor announced Tuesday he has called a special session of the General Assembly on Wednesday to reconsider Act 1002, legislation that disallows state agencies, schools, university, and other public bodies from enacting mask requirements.
The session will be held at 10 a.m.
Hutchinson reiterated on Tuesday that he is not in favor of a statewide mask mandate, but the governor is urging lawmakers to reconsider at least a portion of Act 1002 to allow public school districts to decide whether to require masking at local schools, especially for those aged 12 and under who are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The reasons for this is, they are required to go to school,” he said. “Secondly, we understand the value of in-classroom instruction, and we want those children to be as safe as possible. Local school districts are all different across the state, and they have different opinions on this. And they reflect different wishes of parents and their constituents. Local school districts should make the call, and they should have more options to make sure that their school is a safe environment during a very challenging time for education.”
Legislators will also vote on whether to affirm the governor’s decision to opt out of a federally-funded pandemic employment benefit program that would pay out-of-work Arkansans $300 per week.
Hutchinson had previously announced in May the state would opt out of federal unemployment assistance on June 26. The federal program would have extended for ten more weeks, through early September. A judge this week filed a temporary injunction against Hutchinson ordering continuation of the program pending an appeal of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Legislators uphold governors emergency order
Arkansas legislators in the Arkansas House and Senate upheld the governor’s declaration of emergency in a special session held Tuesday in Little Rock.
Legislators took no action on the measure, essentially affirming the measure enacted by executive order last week, set to extend for 60 days from Thursday.
Last session, legislators voted to limit the governor’s power to declare a state of emergency related to public health at his sole discretion.
“In the last legislative session, the General Assembly changed the law to accept an equal responsibility in managing the state’s response to the current public health crisis,” Hutchinson said. “I know how difficult the decisions are, and how quick they have to be made when the state faces an emergency. But the law has been changed which limits my powers as governor and transfers a significant responsibility to the General Assembly. As a result of that new law, the General Assembly met today and affirmed my most recent renewal of the public health emergency. I am grateful for the quick action of the General Assembly.”
Hutchinson announced that COVID-19 cases in Arkansas increased by 2,343 on Tuesday.
Hospitalizations were up by 30, bringing the total number of patients hospitalized in the state to 1,250.
There are currently 260 patients in the state on ventilators, up 10 since the day prior.
The state also announced 16 new deaths on Monday, bringing the total number of deaths in the state as a result of the pandemic to 6,215.
There are currently 19,499 cases of COVID-19 considered active in the state, which includes those that have tested positive by both PCR and antigen testing methods.
There were 5,106 PCR tests and 3,595 antigen tests announced Tuesday.
The new cases bring the total cumulative count in Arkansas to 391,623 since the pandemic began.
The state announced that 30,756 additional doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, bringing the total number of doses given by the state to 2,386,676. The state lists 317,261 as partially immunized, and 1,076,733 individuals as fully immunized.
Hutchinson said he was pleased with the large number of vaccinations announced Monday.
"Yesterday, we reported 30,000 doses given out," he said. "The demand is increased, I am pleased with that.
"Thank you Arkansans for doing more research, talking to your physicians, getting information from trusted sources, and making that decision that helps us all," he said.
All Arkansans ages 12 and older are currently eligible for a vaccine.
Those who need assistance locating a vaccine can call 1-800-985-6030.
The top counties for new cases on Friday were Pulaski (276), Washington (189), and Benton (119).