Top stories: Pandemic continues in state, county
As it did in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on daily life around the world continued to dominate the news last year. In Arkansas, and Carroll County it was no different.
The increased availability of vaccines brought with it a chance to take a breath — at least where the pandemic was concerned — as many of the restrictions of the previous year were relaxed.
Any breather, however, was a short one. The year started rough, but there were signs of progress as more and more Arkansans were vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19.
Unfortunately, increased vaccinations didn’t bring an end to the pandemic, as repeated surges related to two aggressive variants — first Delta, then Omicron — seemed to wipe out any real progress.
The Arkansas Department of Health reported Saturday the number of cases of COVID-19 had increased by 337,166 since Jan. 3, 2021 — more than double the 2020 total of 233,475 — bringing the number of Arkansans who tested positive for the novel coronavirus to 570,641, including 4,978 cases reported on Dec. 30, the highest daily increase since the pandemic began.
On Dec. 30, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson addressed reports from the state health department, which included the record increase, saying the number of cases could actually be higher because of the number of at-home test kits in use.
A day earlier, Hutchinson said the relatively low number of new hospitalizations was the “truest indicator of severity of our cases.”
The health department report classified 536,174 cases across the state as “recoveries” and listed 9,180 deaths from complications related to COVID-19, an increase of 5,431 since the end of 2020. Since February, more than 96 percent of those who died were unvaccinated.
In Carroll County, the number of positive tests increased by 2,616, bringing the total to 4,616 cases, with 4,450 “recoveries” and 81 deaths, an increase of 51 deaths during 2021, including six in December alone.
On the vaccination front, the state health department reported on Jan. 1 that 1,507,248 Arkansans aged 5 and older were fully vaccinated, with another 355,073 listed as partially vaccinated, while 439,288 have received their third-dose booster. In Carroll County, 29,783 doses of the various vaccines had been administered, with 47.2 percent of the 5-and-older population listed as fully immunized and another 9.4 percent as partially immunized.
Combined, those numbers represent approximately 56.6 percent of the county’s population that is eligible to receive a vaccine.
Looking back over the course of the year, the state’s response to the pandemic proved mixed, as hopeful efforts to return to a sense of normalcy ran head-first into increasing number of infected, unwillingness on the part of some to receive a vaccine, and new laws that didn’t seem to accurately fit everywhere in the state.
On Dec. 29, 2020, Hutchinson announced he would be extending the state of emergency — which was scheduled to end the next day — by an additional 60 days. On Jan. 4, the state health department reported 233,475 cases of COVID-19 statewide. There had been nearly 3,500 deaths related to the novel coronavirus.
In Carroll County, there were 2,000 reported cases with 30 deaths.
“There’s not any good news at all in this report,” Hutchinson said during a Dec. 29, 2020, news conference.
At the end of February, Hutchinson announced a further extension of the pandemic emergency, while at the same time lifting most of the state’s safety restrictions designed to combat the spread of COVID-19.
As of March 1, the novel coronavirus had led to the deaths of more than 513,000 Americans, including 5,200 Arkansans and 41 Carroll County residents.
“The reason that we are making this announcement today on the continuation of the emergency is that it is necessary because we need to have these items still in place,” Hutchinson said. “But we’ve also made progress. Nothing is guaranteed for the future, but while we’re still in an emergency, we have made progress.”
During the first two months of 2021, the number of Arkansans who had died from complications related to COVID-19 increased by nearly 1,800. In Carroll County, the number of deaths jumped from 30 to 41, a number that would double over the next 10 months. The number of reported cases in Arkansas on March 1 was 322,415, including 2,713 in Carroll County.
By the end of March, more than one million doses of the various COVID-19 vaccines had been administered across the state, which Hutchinson announcing on March 30 that all Arkansans aged 16 and over would be eligible to receive a vaccine.
At the same time, Hutchinson also lifted the statewide mask mandate, saying even for those who have been fully vaccinated, it’s important to “be courteous and to be mindful that we need to protect ourselves and others.”
“Common sense should govern,” he said. “Please respect the decisions of others in regards to masks whether it is a private business or individuals.”
At the time, 1,242,842 doses of the various vaccines had been administered to Arkansans, the number of cases had risen to 331,054 and the number of deaths to 5,643.
By August, Hutchinson had reinstated the public health emergency, prompting some of the county’s largest employers — including Tyson Foods — and healthcare providers like Mercy Health, to implement vaccine mandates, while school districts across the state had begun considering whether — or which — pandemic precautions for the new school year should be maintained.
On Aug. 2, the state health department reported a total of 388,436 cases of COVID-19 with 6,157 deaths, including 52 in Carroll County.
The school year began with a lawsuit filed against the state by several school districts challenging a move by the state legislature that would have effectively prevented local decisions regarding pandemic precautions, including the wearing of face coverings.
Hutchinson, who sign Act 1002 into law in April, spoke against the act in August, saying he regretted the decision.
“It is conservative, reasonable and compassionate to allow local school districts to protect those students who are under 12 and not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine,” Hutchinson said in a Twitter post. “If we are going to have a successful school year than the local school districts need to have flexibility to protect those that are at risk.”
Superintendents at Berryville, Eureka Springs and Green Forest all agreed, saying local districts should be able to make their own decisions regarding masks.
“If they just left it up to Eureka Springs schools, Berryville schools, Green Forest schools, we would come up with something that would work for us — or nothing at all,” said Green Forest superintendent Matt Summers. “We’d get it right 99.9 percent of the time. And what works for Green Forest might not work for Eureka Springs, but I’m sure they know what their population expects and what they’re going to do. Give us that opportunity.”
The Eureka Springs and Berryville school districts reinstated their mask mandates, while the Green Forest board chose not to do so.
Not long after a special session of the legislature failed to amend the act, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the ban on mask mandates, allowing districts to make their own decisions. Fox issued a final ruling striking down Act 1002 on Dec. 29, ruling it unconstitutional on multiple grounds, including that it discriminates between children in public and private schools.
By Sept. 6, an additional 900 Arkansans were dead from COVID-19 complications — among them, a total of 61 Carroll County residents.
As the vaccine effort continued, the state finally began to see some relief. From September through December, the number of fully vaccinated Arkansans increased by 207,147 to 1,456,859 and the monthly average number of deaths fell from approximately 654 to 560.
The month of December represented a mixed bag, as the percentage of Arkansans aged 5 and up who had been vaccinated reached nearly 53 percent with an additional 12 percent partially immunized. At the same time, the number of cases increased by more than 30,000 and the number of deaths increased by nearly 500, including six more in Carroll County.
Looking ahead, Hutchinson said he had a simple goal.
“My goal is to get through January without overwhelming our hospitals,” Hutchinson said in a Dec. 29 post on Twitter. “To do this we need to increase vaccinations.”