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The State Of Arkansas Has Only 8 Empty ICU Beds, As COVID-19 Cases Resurge

The ICU Covid-19 ward at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, Ark., last week.
Maranie R. Staab
Bloomberg via Getty Images
The ICU Covid-19 ward at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, Ark., last week.

Arkansas, among the states hardest-hit by a new wave of coronavirus cases linked to the highly contagious delta variant, says it is down to eight unoccupied ICU beds statewide with which to care for COVID-19 patients.

Gov. Asa Hutchison, in a tweet on Monday, said the latest report highlighted "startling numbers."

"We saw the largest single-day increase in hospitalizations and have eclipsed our previous high of COVID hospitalizations," the governor wrote. "There are currently only eight ICU beds available in the state."

"Vaccinations reduce hospitalizations," he added.

Hospitalization of COVID-19 patients jumped by 103 to 1,376, the report cited by Hutchison shows. It's the biggest daily jump and total in the state since the start of the pandemic.

"This is unlike anything that we experienced before during the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dr. Cam Patterson, who serves as chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, which includes the UAMS Medical Center hospital in Little Rock.

Hospitals are seeing younger patients than before. A year ago, the average COVID-19 patient was over 60 years old, Patterson tells Morning Edition. Now the average age is 40.

Nearly half of the people in the hospital's ICU are there because of COVID-19. About 20% of COVID-19 patients have been pregnant people, Patterson says, some of whom have lost their babies because of the disease.

A year ago, the health system's children's hospital usually had one or two COVID-19 patients. Now there are 22. Many of these patients are eligible for vaccines but haven't been vaccinated, he says.

Medical staff are overwhelmed and exhausted.

"I heard from a nurse who said that she cries in her car before she comes into work now," Patterson says. "We've had nurses walk off in the middle of shifts because they can't take it anymore."

About 17% of nursing positions at the hospital are vacant, which increases the load on the current staff.

"They're taking care of more patients than they're used to and they're just flat worn out," he says.

Arkansas has among the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with fewer than 43% of adults fully immunized.

"It's difficult to come into work and to deal with these challenges when you know that there was an antidote to this, the vaccine that people have chosen not to take. And it's difficult not to become angry," Patterson says.

In April, Hutchison signed into law a statewide ban on further mask mandates. However, in a news conference last week, the governor said he regretted signing the measure, which has complicated his state's efforts to control the spread of the virus.

"In hindsight, I wish that it had not become law," he said. "But it is the law, and the only chance we have is either to amend it or for the courts to say that it has an unconstitutional foundation."

Last week, a court temporarily blocked the law from being enforced.

Portions of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.