LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday extended his coronavirus emergency declaration by another two months as the state reported a record one-day spike in deaths and a new high in hospitalizations from COVID-19.
Hutchinson has used his emergency powers to impose restrictions, including a statewide mask mandate, to combat the pandemic. The emergency declaration was first issued in March and was set to expire at the end of the month.
The state reported Tuesday that 66 more people died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, bringing Arkansas’ total fatalities since the pandemic began to 3,603. Tuesday’s death toll was the state’s highest since the previous record set just last week, when it reported 58 new deaths Dec. 21.
Arkansas' virus cases rose by 2,718 to 219,246. The number of people hospitalized rose by six, pushing the state's hospitalizations to a new high of 1,161.
“I am very concerned about where we could be going, " Dr. Jose Romero, the state's health secretary, said at a news conference. Romero urged Arkansans to avoid large crowds or gatherings to celebrate New Year's Eve this week.
Five percent of the state’s 1,155 intensive care unit beds and 21% of the state’s 8,940 hospital beds are available. There are 385 COVID-19 patients in ICUs around the state, according to the Department of Health.
On Tuesday, a House spokeswoman said Republican state Rep. Harlan Breaux tested positive for the virus. Breaux is the 17th state legislator to contract the virus since October. Breaux has mild symptoms and is recovering at home, House spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo said.
Arkansas legislative leaders earlier this month rejected a request by Hutchinson to meet by the end of December to vote on supporting an extension of the virus declaration. House and Senate leaders said they expected the issue to come up in next year's legislative session, which begins Jan. 11.
Hutchinson has faced pushback from some fellow Republicans in the Legislature over the state's virus restrictions. A lawsuit filed by a group of lawmakers seeking to invalidate the restrictions was dismissed by a judge but that ruling has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Under state law, lawmakers at any time can terminate an emergency declaration by concurrent resolution. Some GOP lawmakers have said they're proposing measures to end the declaration or scale back the governor's emergency powers.
Hutchinson said he expected lawmakers to take up the issue in the regular session.
“I would ask them to measure whether we should extend the emergency," he said.
Hutchinson said he wasn't satisfied with the pace of the vaccine distribution in the state. The governor said 48% of the 48,375 doses it had received of the Pfizer vaccine had been distributed while only about 5% of the 31,700 Moderna vaccine doses had been distributed.
Health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities are the first in the state to receive the vaccine, and Hutchinson said the state hoped to move to the next phase of vaccine distribution in February.
Hutchinson also said he had not decided whether to extend an order requiring bars and restaurants that serve alcohol to close by 11 p.m. The order, which Hutchinson issued last month, expires on Sunday.
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