Arkansas Nearly Out of ICU Beds as Delta Variant Fuels US Pandemic

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Only eight intensive care unit beds were available on Monday in the state of Arkansas, its governor said, as the rapid spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus pushed cases and hospitalizations in the United States to a six-month high.

In neighboring Texas, Governor Greg Abbott asked hospitals to postpone elective surgeries as the variant raged through swathes of the country including many southern states grappling with low vaccination rates.

Nationwide, COVID-19 cases have averaged 100,000 for three days in a row, up 35% over the past week, according to a Reuters tally of public health data. Louisiana, Florida, and Arkansas reported the most new cases in the past week, based on population. 

Hospitalizations rose 40% and deaths, a lagging indicator, registered an 18% rise nationwide in the past week.

"We saw the largest single-day increase in hospitalizations and have eclipsed our previous high of COVID hospitalizations," Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said on Twitter. "There are currently only eight ICU beds available in the state."

Hutchinson, a Republican, urged Arkansans to be vaccinated against the pandemic, which many of his constituents have been hesitant to do in part because of widespread disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

Abbott, who in May issued an order banning local governments from requiring masks to help prevent the spread of the virus, said on Monday he would increase the number of clinics in Texas where COVID patients can receive infusions of antibodies.

Florida set a new single-day record with 28,317 cases on Sunday, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Hospitalizations in Florida have been at record highs for eight days in a row, according to the Reuters analysis. Most Florida students are due back in the classroom this week as some school districts debate whether to require masks for pupils.

Holding signs, mask proponents, and opponents gathered at the Pinellas County Schools building near St. Petersburg on Monday where the school board called a special session to discuss mask protocols.

The head of the nation's second-largest teachers' union on Sunday announced a shift in course by backing mandated vaccinations for U.S. teachers in an effort to protect students who are too young to be inoculated.

The number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 is rising across the country, a trend health experts attribute to the Delta variant being more likely to infect children than the original Alpha strain.

With the virus once again upending Americans' lives after a brief summer lull, the push to vaccinate those still reluctant has gained fresh momentum.

The Pentagon on Monday said that it will seek Biden's approval by the middle of September to require military members to get vaccinated.

The evolving pandemic and the rapid community spread spurred by the Delta variant have prompted the cancellation of some large-scale events. Last week, organizers canceled the New York Auto Show that had been set for later this month.

The New Orleans Jazz Fest was canceled for the second straight year as Louisiana fights a severe outbreak.

But fears about the Delta variant seem to not have dampened the mood in Sturgis, a small town in South Dakota that welcomes hundreds of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

"It is one of the biggest crowds I have seen," Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin said in an email. "I think there will definitely be some spread."

Sturgis has partnered with health officials to provide COVID-19 self-test kits to rally-goers but the event, taking place Aug. 6-15, does not require proof of vaccination or mask-wearing.

Last year, health officials cited the rally as a super-spreader event that contributed to an autumn surge in the Midwest.

While cases and hospitalizations were relatively low in South Dakota when the event started on Aug. 7, 2020, three months later the state set a record for hospitalized COVID-19 patients and new infections.

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