LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson and staff officials stressed concerns over the rising COVID-19 cases in Arkansas, specifically highlighting the increasing number of cases in those under the age of 18 so early into the school year.

Hutchinson said during his weekly briefing Tuesday that the number of cases for those 18 and younger have “accelerated” at a rapid pace compared to this time last year with 30 percent of all active cases in the state currently being from that age group.

“This is something different than parents and schools have had to deal with in the past,” Hutchinson said.

Vaccination rates among teachers have increased since the school year began and Secretary of Health Dr. José Romero says that 30 percent of children ages 12-18 are fully vaccinated while nearly 45 percent have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccinate. As for children under the age of 12, Romero says that he doesn’t expect it to be approved for them to get the vaccine until later this year “at the earliest.”

Romero also said that 99.3 percent of the cases currently in the state are from the Delta variant, showing that the virus is even more contagious, which is a concern for him and the governor with the Labor Day holiday coming up.

“Every holiday weekend we have seen since the pandemic, we have seen a surge in the number of cases,” Romero said.

The governor offered a bit of good news – the state of Arkansas gave out 13,642 total doses of the vaccine in the 24 hours leading up to the media briefing showing that more Arkansans are getting vaccinated.

While hospitalizations have gone down by 45, the number of ventilators being used has gone up by 27. Hutchinson says that unvaccinated people are three times more likely to be admitted to the hospital and 3.2 times more likely to die from the virus.

“Vaccination is the right call, it is the healthy call, and it is the one that minimizes your risk of hospitalizations and death because of COVID,” he said.

Troy Wells, president and CEO of Baptist Health, said that 87 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated within the 11 Baptist Health centers across the state, including the Conway location.

“The patients are younger, and the patients are much sicker,” Wells said.

Wells says that Baptist Health has completed its first phase of expansion, creating 33 new ICU beds and 124 new medical surgical beds. However, those 33 new ICU beds filled up within 24 hours after being opened and only 70-80 of the medical surgical beds were open at the time of the briefing. Wells said that Baptist Health Center in North Little Rock opened up 12 more COVID-capable ICU beds Tuesday and that nine were still available as of the briefing.

“The pressure on ICU continues to be very severe,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to make sure that if someone is sick with COVID, that they have a hospital bed and if they need ICU, there is an ICU available.”

Wells says that Baptist Health hopes to add 64 more ICU beds in September, and Hutchinson said that close to $300 million has been devoted to staffing issues as well as capacity in the different hospitals across the state.

“What we are monitoring very closely is the hospital space and capacity,” Hutchinson said. “While we have significant hospital capacity in Arkansas, our ICU bed space is very tight.”

Hutchinson said that cases are beginning to flatten out, which is “encouraging.”

Hutchinson opened the media briefing by paying respect to Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, one of the 13 fallen U.S. soldiers that were killed in the Kabul suicide bombing Thursday. Sgt. Hoover was born in Arkansas and was the nephew of Jeremy and Heather Soto – Jeremy Soto is the pastor at a church in southern Arkansas.

“I wanted to express appreciation for the life of Staff Sgt. Hoover and the work that he did to save lives in Afghanistan.” Hutchinson said. “May his service and life to our nation never be forgotten.”

Hutchinson also wanted to pay respect to the over 500 National Guard men and women that are heading down to Louisiana to help with the effects of Hurricane Ida. He said that there was a request for State Trooper assistance, and that they are currently waiting for federal approval to send 33 state troopers down to Louisiana.

Lastly, Hutchinson also went over highlights from the Arkansas Rent Relief program. According to Hutchinson, as of Tuesday, 13,727 households have applied for rent relief with 2,909 of them have been assisted already. Another 2,505 were still in process with 8,221 households waiting on approval. Only 93 households have been denied, he said.

Jordan Wooodson can be reached at jwoodson@thecabin.net

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