LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he is reinstating a public health emergency for the state of Arkansas as COVID-19 cases skyrocket and that he is bringing back the legislature for a special session to consider amending a state law banning mask mandates to allow for schools to set their own guidelines.

The governor said his main reason for implementing the state of emergency, which still needs approval by the Arkansas Legislative Council, is the current status of hospitals in the state.

“I believe today it was four covid patients that are waiting in ambulances to find a hospital to go to that constitutes an emergency and a public health crisis,” he explained. 

The declaration will last for 60 days and will allow the state to seek additional staffing assistance from an interstate compact. It will also loosen some of the requirements for licensure of staff. 

The hope is more staff will be available quickly to accommodate the physical expansion of hospitals. 

The White House will also be sending its Surge Team to look into what Arkansas’ hospital inventory looks like, which Hutchinson said would help the state, “to evaluate and to strategize and to maximize our current hospital space.”

The news of the public health emergency came after Hutchinson announced another daily spike in cases, with 2,843 new cases reported in the last 24 hours. This moves the active cases count to 17,232 and the total case count to 382,569.

Hospitalizations were slightly down from the day prior, dropping by nine to 1,055, though the number of patients on ventilators jumped by 10 cases to 219.

Another 11 Arkansans died in the last day from the virus, bringing the total to 6,110 since the pandemic.

The governor also highlighted the difference with how the virus is hitting unvaccinated residents compared to those who have gotten vaccine doses.

State records show that since January first, unvaccinated patients make up 96.39 percent of new COVID-19 cases, 95.35 percent of hospitalizations and 97.4 percent of deaths.

He also noted that the pandemic is hitting Arkansas hospitals harder now than a year ago, showing that the percentages of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and patients on ventilators due to COVID-19 are all significantly higher now than those figures were in July 2020.

Hutchinson said the move to call for a review of Act 1002 to add an amendment allowing for school boards to have the authority to set their own mask plans was driven by the fact that Arkansas students under the age of 12 have no options when it comes to vaccinations.

“That this is necessary for providing local school boards the ability to protect those most vulnerable, young people 12 and under,” he said.

The governor noted he did consider higher education and municipalities but said folks in those situations were able to protect themselves with the vaccine.

He also said he was not sure whether or not there were enough votes in the state legislature to pass the amendment.

Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray issued a statement after the governor’s press conference, saying in part that Hutchinson was “in a tough spot” while calling out El Dorado Republican Sen. Trent Garner for his efforts to block any changes to the new law.

“The governor is in a tough spot and these are some important first steps, that based on the surging COVID case numbers, couldn’t be delayed any longer. It should be a given that protecting our children is one of our state’s most fundamental responsibilities. But members of his own party like Sen. Trent Garner are out there threatening the Governor and those of us who want to protect children in schools, telling news media there will be ‘consequences.’”

“The consequences of Garner’s ill conceived legislation to prohibit mask rules will far outweigh any hurt feelings he may have from the Governor returning these decisions back to local school boards and parents. We need to trust parents and our local schools to make the best decisions for themselves and their own lives. I hope the Legislature is thinking about all of those school kids under 12 who can’t protect themselves with a vaccine, and I hope they do the right thing to let local decision makers do what’s best for their communities.”

Garner was quick to fire back at the news of the special session, saying he had his own legislative agenda if lawmakers were returning to the capitol.

The special session is planned to happen sometime next week.

The governor noted that his legal counsel has informed him that he cannot change the ban on a mask mandate under the new public emergency declaration.

Vaccinations continue to climb in Arkansas, with 1,053,989 people in the state fully immunized, an increase of 2,855. Another 297,266 Arkansans are partially immunized.