Governor expects 'difficult' January of COVID-19 cases; points to holiday gatherings for increase

Max Bryan
Times Record
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks to media following an economic development announcement in January, at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. Hutchinson and Republican lawmakers on Monday, March 1, proposed overhauling Arkansas' Medicaid expansion to encourage recipients to work after the state's work requirement was halted by the courts and President Joe Biden's administration.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is asking Arkansans to exercise caution and care in what he said appears will be "a very difficult month" of COVID-19.

Arkansas on Tuesday added 4,107 cases to its total of more than 238,000. The state also had around 1,500 COVID patients hospitalized on Tuesday.

"People have to continue to wear a mask, socially distance and not just simply rely on a vaccine that's down the road," Hutchinson said on Monday morning in Fort Smith.

Hutchinson attributed the rise in cases to family gatherings that happened over the holidays at the end of December. He said the increase in cases "is going to put a strain" on hospitals in Arkansas.

Sebastian County as of Tuesday morning had 745 active cases and 145 deaths from COVID-19.

Sebastian County EMS Director Dr. Lee Johnson said the increase in county hospital numbers is both due to COVID and patients who got sick in other ways during the winter months.

"Every winter, there’s a baseline surge in volume (at hospitals). We see that every winter. I think some of that is tied to cold and flu season, and people are driven indoors more because of the shorter days and the colder weather," he said.

While Johnson attributed the time of year to the patient increase in hospitals, he also said measures such as social distancing and mask wearing have helped curb the spread of other sicknesses. He also said healthcare workers have learned a lot about treating COVID-19 since March and even since the fall months. Because of this, Sebastian County's baseline winter surge is less than it could have been — he said Mercy Fort Smith and Baptist Health Fort Smith are both feeling a strain but aren't "overly burdened."

Hutchinson said Arkansas officials are pushing to get the first dose of the COVID vaccine to healthcare workers and people in long-term care facilities before the end of January. He said some will also get a second dose within that time because it was given to them early in the month.

Because of the vaccine and the time of year, Johnson hopes the worst of COVID-19 will be limited to the next two to three weeks. At least 37,884 vaccine doses had been distributed in the state as of Tuesday, Hutchinson said.

“If we can get people vaccinated in the next few weeks, you’re going to see, hopefully, a decrease in cases," he said.

In the meantime, Johnson and Hutchinson both encourage everyone to wear their masks and socially distance. Johnson said the coming weeks will be "critical in how we weather the storm."

"If we can just hang on for the next three weeks and continue to be diligent, I think that’s the most important thing they can try to do," Johnson said.

“It’s going to be a tough month, and we have to work together to get through it," Hutchinson said.