With COVID-19 surging, Governor Hutchinson held a special briefing today on plans to cope should hospitals begin to reach capacity. The numbers weren’t good.

The daily COVID-19 count

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New cases: 2,061

Deaths:24

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Hospitalizations: up 36 to 935 (new record()

Active cases: 17,360

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Testing: Still at the double-digit-plus positivity rate.

The governor emphasized that COVID cases aren’t solely responsible for hospital demand. Proportionally, demand seems highest in the northeast and north central sectors of the state.

DR. CAM PATTERSON

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson reported on COVID task force work on hospital needs. He said there was good news in the adequate supplies of protective gear.

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He spoke about putting people at work with patients, even those in quarantine themselves (about 400 currently at UAMS).

New guidelines will allow essential health works who’ve been exposed, if they’ve tested negative, to return to work with enhanced precautions. Some specific guidelies are coming later today. He also said under extreme conditions, an infected worker might be able to work if they are asymptomatic, treating infected patients and segregated from other workers.

He also discussed establishing a system to transfer COVID patients to facilities better able to treat them, much as trauma cases are coordinated.

Other topics and Q&A

Health Director Jose Romero talked about new Centers for Disease Control discouragement of travel during the holiday. If you travel, take a test beforehand. He said a gathering of less than 10 people would be advisable, preferably only people living in the same home. He urged against bringing people from nursing homes to private homes. People who leave may have to be quarantined before being allowed to return.

Romero said it would take about three weeks for the FDA to issue approval of Pfizer’s new vaccine on an emergency basis. This and another new vaccine likely will be available in December, but only to a select group of people — health workers and those with great risk.

The governor said the state will waive a licensure fee for about 1,000 new nursing graduates. He said hiring was a challenge as facilities are bidding for employees with bonuses.

Why an 11 p.m. closing time for establishments that serve alcohol? And should there be further restrictions on businesses?

The governor said the closing time was a product of discussion with compliance officers and their opinion on when compliance may become more problematic. He remained steadfast in opposition to further restrictions. “Our businesses are working very hard on compliance. I’ve indicated on numerous occasions we want to keep our businesses going.” He continued to insist that restaurants and bars weren’t contributing to the rise in cases, but blamed it on private group gatherings.

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The early closing is in place through Jan. 3. If things improve, it could be lifted earlier, but “on the trajectory we’re on” that doesn’t seem likely, he said.

Passing thought: If the governor is so sure restaurants and bars aren’t contribiting to COVID problems, why limit them at all?

The governor turned away a question about students congregating after Thanksgiving in schools. He said the schools would be a more disciplined environment than where they otherwise might go.