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story.lead_photo.caption Barbara McDonald, an advanced practice registered nurse for UAMS, begins to screen patients Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 during a drive-thru covid-19 testing at the Lonoke Community Center. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

For the second day in a row, the number of people hospitalized in Arkansas with covid-19 hit a record as the state's tally of patients increased by 18 on Sunday, for a total of 1,234, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

Additionally, newly reported covid-19 cases rose by 2,033 on Sunday. The new-case total was slightly higher than the 2,000 cases reported on Saturday, but it was down compared with the record-setting 4,304 cases reported on Friday.

The number of patients on ventilators decreased by three, to 194.

Twenty more deaths from covid-19 were reported on Sunday, with 16 of them classified as confirmed and four as probable, according to the Department of Health, bringing the overall death toll in Arkansas to 3,749.

The number of active cases in the state also reached a record high on Sunday. The state's count rose by 252, for an active-case total of 24,238.

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Pulaski County led the state in terms of new cases reported on Sunday, with 292, followed by Benton County with 213, Washington County with 186, Sebastian County with 112 and Faulkner County with 74.

The majority of the new cases, 1,643, reported on Sunday were classified as confirmed based on positive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, while the remaining 390 were classified as probable based on rapid antigen tests.

Testing on Saturday led to results from 10,892 PCR tests and 957 antigen tests being reported to the health officials, according to the Department of Health.

GOVERNOR TALKS VACCINES

During an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation," Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Sunday addressed complications facing the covid-19 vaccine distribution effort.

Asked about an estimate attributed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said Arkansas has only distributed one-third of vaccine doses the state has been given, Hutchinson acknowledged "a number of challenges."

He added, "We've got to do better, both at the federal and at the state level."

The limited supply of the vaccines means recipients have to be prioritized, Hutchinson said, and he cited "some reluctance" by individuals scheduled to receive the vaccine as a complicating factor.

The first groups of people scheduled to receive the covid-19 vaccine in Arkansas are health care workers and residents and staff members at long-term care facilities. Together, the individuals in those groups are known as the Phase 1-A recipients of the vaccine, according to the Department of Health.

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"We're focusing on our long-term care facilities, and that has to have consents, in many instances, and that slows up the process," Hutchinson said. "But even with that, we have to do better, we have to act with a sense of urgency, and we can do that."

When pressed on whether the private sector should assume a greater role during the immunization effort, Hutchinson described the state's role in vaccine distribution as one of allocating doses, with the actual administering of the vaccine left to the private sector.

Hutchinson seemed to suggest the current challenges illustrate what lies ahead, as the pool of potential vaccine recipients is poised to expand in the coming weeks.

"We're gonna have to utilize more resources to get this out than we've got planned right now," he said.

He said staffing challenges related to vaccinations amid already-strained medical personnel could be addressed by looking broadly at how to utilize more human resources.

"Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan asked whether the governor had asked Walmart, a retail giant based in Arkansas, to help with vaccine distribution.

"Walmart is ready to help --" Hutchinson said.

"Would it be better if the private sector took this over?" Brennan interjected.

"The private sector is very engaged," Hutchinson said. "The private sector is doing it, both the independent pharmacies as well as the chain pharmacies, and so the private sector is delivering it."

He added moments later, "The delivery is directly to the private sector, and they're getting it out, but not as fast as we would like."

The governor said he believes the state will have vaccinated everyone in Phase 1-A by the end of January and that vaccine distribution will move to essential workers in the group known as Phase 1-B.

"You're gonna see these numbers increase dramatically in the next week, 10 days," Hutchinson said.

According to Department of Health spokesman Gavin Lesnick, under the state's program, 33,835 vaccine doses have been injected out of 124,325 doses that have been shipped to health care providers such as hospitals and pharmacies.

An additional 1,017 doses have been administered in long-term care settings under a federal program partnering with Walgreens and CVS.

"As the governor noted, the limited supply of the vaccine and reluctance by some to receive it have played a role," Lesnick wrote in an email Sunday. "The timing of the vaccine arrival just before the holidays caused some delays, and it takes time for the partner pharmacies to arrange clinics at long-term care facilities, obtain informed consent from residents -- or their family members or guardian -- and begin vaccinations."

He added, "While we're confident that these efforts will speed up, this is a complex process which is slower than vaccinating in non-institutional settings and it will take time to vaccinate everyone who wishes to be vaccinated. We will work to get it done as quickly as possible."

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When Hutchinson was asked by Brennan about states such as Florida and Texas, where officials have strayed from a CDC recommendation to prioritize people age 75 and older at the same time as front-line essential workers during the second phase of vaccinations, he said officials in Arkansas are examining a similar move.

He said officials are also considering reducing the age threshold to 70.

"We're trying to save lives, getting to the most vulnerable first, and so we're still looking at that, as to whether that should be lowered. That decision will be forthcoming," Hutchinson said.

In a separate statement issued on Twitter on Sunday, Hutchinson said the Department of Health will begin releasing the number of vaccine doses received and shots administered on the agency's website.

"We are still in the early stages of vaccine distribution and now the public can monitor progress," Hutchinson wrote on Twitter.

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DISTRICT LOOKS AHEAD

Mike Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock School District, said Sunday that the 21,000-student district did a "solid job" in protecting employees and students in the first half of the school year and must approach the second half with the same gusto.

In a video message posted in advance of employees returning to work today and students resuming classes on Tuesday, Poore announced:

• Attendance at upcoming athletic events will be more strictly limited to families of the athletes.

• Weekly, voluntary testing for covid-19 that has been available at Central High and Parkview High will be expanded to include those at Southwest High and Pinnacle View Middle School in the coming days.

• School nurses are among those front-line medical workers now able to receive vaccines against covid-19, and some have done so. Plans call for all school nurses who want the vaccine to get it by the end of this week.

• The district is surveying employees for their ages, preexisting health conditions and job assignments in an effort to prioritize employees for the vaccines once they are available to school personnel, which is tentatively expected to be at the end of January or early February.

"We want to be prepared if pharmacies and [the Arkansas Department of Health] open up the possibility of vaccines," Poore said.

In the video message, Poore noted that as of this past weekend, there were 19 teachers, of the total 1,800 in the district, and 35 students in quarantine because of exposure to the virus.

"The low numbers represent ... how seriously this community takes this pandemic," he said, adding that the district's administrative team, school nurses and others have continued to track covid-19 cases and quarantine throughout the two-week holiday break from classes.

However, later Sunday afternoon, the district released its covid-19 report for the 48-hour weekend period starting at 3 p.m. Friday and ending at 3 p.m. Sunday. That report showed 28 covid-19 cases reported among district teachers and other staff members and one student case at a total of 13 different district sites. A total of 32 employees were in quarantine because of symptoms or exposure to covid-19, according to Sunday's report.

In the first semester, the district frequently called on schools or grades within schools to pivot from in-person to virtual instruction for up to several days in the event of a flare-up of covid-19, covid-19 exposures or a shortage of staff members to supervise students, Poore said in the video.

That practice will continue to protect students and staff members, Poore said, adding that he believed the instructional pivoting -- along with commitments by staffs and students to wearing masks, cleaning hands, socially distancing and sanitizing surfaces -- has helped reduce the spread of covid-19.

The superintendent also issued reminders that parents can continue to choose between in-person and virtual instruction for their students, and that the coming Friday will be the district's first weekly "Virtual Friday" in which all students will do their classwork online.

In-person students can choose to stay at home on Fridays to do their schoolwork or report to campus as usual, where they will be supervised as they do their online schoolwork. Buses will run and meals will be served on Virtual Fridays.

Poore cited comments from Dr. Ashish Jha, a general internist physician and dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and Dr. Benjamin Linas, associate professor of medicine at Boston University, in support of keeping schools open to in-person instruction at a time when covid-19 cases are surging in communities.

Both said schools do not currently appear to be places of high transmission and should not be closed in advance of seemingly more high-risk operations such as restaurants, bars, gyms and casinos, Poore quoted the physicians as saying.

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