By Ray King

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson on Friday announced that the state nursing licensing board is being asked to waive fees for over 1,000 nursing students in the state due to graduate in the next few weeks.

At a press conference, Hutchinson also said the board is being asked to expedite issuing the licenses so that the new nurses can help to treat patients as hospitals increase the number of COVID patients they are seeing.

The graduating nurses will still be required to pay a fee for a background investigation, but fees of $100 to $125 will be waived.

Currently there are 935 people hospitalized around the state, an increase of 36 from Thursday.

Hutchinson said currently, hospitals have bed space but there are a lot of other health needs besides COVID and as cases increase, that bed space will be reduced.

The state recorded an additional 2,061 cases on Thursday and conducted more than 12,000 tests in a 24-hour period.

Dr. Cam Patterson, the Chancellor at UAMS said the Arkansas Department of Health, working with the COVID Winter Task Force has developed consistent guidelines to bring back medical professionals exposed to COVID-19. He said that currently, more than 400 employees at UAMS are quarantined as a result of exposure.

The guidelines call for essential medical employees who are exposed to have a PCR 5 to 7 days after exposure and if the test is negative, to be able to return to work with extreme precautions.

In extreme conditions, employees who are asymptomatic and not test positive may return to work only if they treat no one but COVID patients and are segregated from non-COVID patients.

On another subject, Patterson said the task force has looked at resources like personal protection equipment around the state and said there is currently about a 60-day supply and orders are coming in on a regular basis.

Asked if state health officials had identified a single source for the increase in COVID cases, State Health Officer Dr. Jose Romero said no, and attributed much of the increase to small group gatherings. He also said CDC guidelines discourages holiday travel and large gatherings.