Governor Hutchinson said today the state had begun steps to increase hospital capacity to be ready for “whatever comes in January.” He also said a new directive will be issued on indoor gatherings.

Hospitalizations hit a new record today, but the governor said “we’re in a better than expected position” because hospitalizations haven’t risen in step with the rise in new cases.


Nonetheless, with the expectation of more needs, he said the state had reached an agreement with Baptist Health to create alternative care sites — 124 new beds in Van Buren and Central Arkansas — to accommodate potential needs. Some would be conventional beds and some ICU beds. It will cost $7.4 million and the state hopes FEMA will cover 80 percent of the cost.

Hutchinson said he hoped the beds wouldn’t be needed, but it was “prudent” to take steps to prepare in case they were.


Beds will be added to care for 50 COVID-19 patients in the Gilbreath Conference Center at Baptist Health facility in Little Rock. That work is underway. An underutilized facility in Van Buren will add 74 beds, 66 for the care of COVID-19 patients and eight ICU beds, said Troy Wells, CEO of Baptist Health. But the Van Buren work will take more work to be ready.

Here’s today’s hospital report:

Current hospitalizations: 1,103

Total Beds: 8,935


Total Beds Available: 2,175

Total ICU Beds: 1,154

Total ICU Beds Available: 51

Total Vents: 1,081

Total Vents Available: 665

Total Covid patients in ICU: 353

Total Covid patients on vents: 173


Hutchinson reported 12,969 health workers had received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, with 23,400 more doses coming in addition to the second dose for those workers. He said 17,700 doses are expected of the Moderna vaccine which will go to pharmacies for use in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.

It’s not clear yet when the state will be ready to move into lower categories of priority after medical workers and nursing homes and if the state will depart in any way from the CDC guidelines on moving to essential workers and then people older than 75.

Health Director Jose Romero said he expected it would take four to six weeks to move beyond the top priority tier.

Indoor gatherings

As for indoor gatherings, there are no new restrictions on indoor gatherings except to require commercial facilities to have an approved health plan for gatherings of more than 10 rather than gatherings of more than 100. This does NOT apply to churches, restaurants, bars, gyms, schools, sporting events or family gatherings, some of which are covered by other rules. It applies to commercial events centers and the like and will be in effect Jan. 2-March 1.

The daily COVID-19 report was in keeping with the recent pattern, a somewhat lower rise early in the week as testing picks back up, but a high death toll. Hutchinson characterized recent numbers as “flat.” Today, for example, cases rose 1,941 compared with 2,141 last Tuesday, but on 11,179 tests today versus 12,169 last week.


Is the state at a  crisis point on beds? The governor said, no. It’s had to use only two beds of additional beds leased at the VA hospital in Little Rock and there’s now a management organization to shift patients in the state as necessary. Troy Wells of Baptist Health said 30 new ICU beds were in the process of being added to the system, separate from the project announced today.

The governor said he hadn’t considered a moratorium on an increase in the minimum wage to $11 an hour scheduled at the first of the year. It’s in the Constitution, he said. And he said he hadn’t heard that was a leading concern of businesses during the pandemic. He said he was hopeful about the new financial relief provided by Congress yesterday.

He was asked again about the UAMS report today that urged mask and other mandates, such as limits on indoor dining. He said he hadn’t read it. He said there are already limits on capacity. “We are addressing it,” he said. He said in his travels he sees “an incredible amount of compliance” with masks, social distancing and the businesses. “Sure, it varies,” he said, but mostly he thinks people have responded well.