LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas on Friday reported its largest single-day increase in deaths from the illness caused by the coronavirus as the state moves closer toward resuming in-person classes at public schools.
The Department of Health reported 22 people had died from COVID-19, bringing the state’s total fatalities from the illness since the pandemic began to 663. The department reported 887 new confirmed coronavirus cases, bringing the state’s total to 55,652.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson and state Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero said they were concerned about the increase in cases coming from social gatherings where people aren’t wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines.
“We’re not back to normal. We have more work to be done,” Hutchinson said.
Of the total cases, the department said 5,854 are active ones that do not include people who have recovered or died. The true number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
The department said half of the new deaths occurred in nursing homes. Four of the deaths occurred in July and were late reports. Before Friday, the biggest one-day increase in the state since the pandemic began was 20 deaths.
The spike in deaths comes days before Arkansas’ public schools are scheduled to reopen next week. Schools are allowed to offer virtual classes or a hybrid option that includes some onsite classes, but the state is requiring schools to be open five days a week for students who need in-person instruction.
The Little Rock teachers’ union backed off plans to defy the state’s requirement to teach classes in person and said they’ll give the district’s reworked schedule for the first week of school a chance.
The Little Rock Education Association said its members will reconvene and reconsider after evaluating conditions over the next week. The group last week had called on teachers in the Little Rock School District to only teach virtually, citing concerns about virus cases in the area. The district’s superintendent on Wednesday announced it will use a phased re-entry plan for its first week.
“If we continue to see that our schools are unsafe and that our students and educators continue to be treated as dispensable, we will not hesitate to take the necessary steps to prevent unwarranted exposure and illness from COVID-19,” Teresa Knapp Gordon, the group’s president, said in a statement.
Arkansas was in the red zone for cases, indicating more than 100 cases per 100,000 people in a week, according to an August 2 report by the White House coronavirus task force that the Center for Public Integrity released Thursday.
Hutchinson said Dr. Deborah Birx, President Donald Trump’s top coronavirus adviser, told him during a visit to Arkansas this week that the state was likely to move out of the red zone next week.
Additionally, Hutchinson announced that the state had completed testing of all of its prison inmates and staff, a goal that had been set for August. The governor said 14,650 inmates had been tested for the virus and 5,120 tested positive. Though the overall rate of positive tests among inmates was 35%, Hutchinson said the rate was 4% for inmates tested over the past two weeks.
Arkansas has tested 4,728 prison staff and 378 have tested positive.
The state prison system on Friday also announced two inmates undergoing treatment at community hospitals for COVID-related symptoms died, bringing the total number of prisoner fatalities from the virus to 38.
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