JONESBORO — As hospitalizations rise and medical staff become strained as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state is taking steps to place newly-graduated nurses on the front lines as soon as possible.

“In the coming weeks, we will have 1,104 nursing students that will graduate from nursing schools across Arkansas,” Hutchinson said Friday. “... The Nursing Licensing Board will expedite the licensure of those 1,104 nursing students that will provide a 24-hour turnaround for their licensure. And I will also ask the board to waive the application fee, which is $100 to $125. We need to get those nurses onboard quickly. We need them to help relieve some of the challenge that they face.”

Hutchinson said the prospective nurses still must undergo background checks.

Hutchinson told reporters hospitals in the Northeast region of the state have seen the highest percentage increase in hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and need for ventilators of any area of the state.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus grew to 935 on Friday, including 184 in Northeast Arkansas.

The governor’s Winter COVID-19 Task Force is working on ways to relieve some of the pressure on NEA facilities by coordinating with other regions.

Cam Patterson, CEO of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center, is chairman of a subcommittee that is developing a plan, potentially through the state’s Arkansas Trauma System, which directs individual patients to the nearest medical facility that meets their specific needs.

“So imagine applying the same principle to patients with COVID-19,” Patterson said. “If a patient is in a facility that doesn’t have the ability to provide intensive care unit management of that patient, the system would know where those resources would exist, would coordinate with emergency medical systems to enact a transfer of that patient, bring the patient to a facility that would have those resources, either because the facility was a higher order facility or if a facility happened to have an empty bed that was available that wasn’t available in the local facility.”

Patterson said it will take time and training before such a plan could be implemented.

On Thursday, the governor announced that businesses that serve alcohol must close by 11 p.m. daily, at least through Jan. 3. The decision was made on the advice of his Winter COVID-19 Task Force. Hutchinson said he doesn’t anticipate any additional steps.

“Our businesses are working very hard on compliance and I’ve indicated on numerous occasions that we want to keep our businesses going. We don’t want to slow them down. We don’t want to put undue hardship on it. We want our decisions to be based upon good facts and analysis, and so we don’t see any justification for any further economic restrictions that there’s not any way to compensate for the losses.”

State and medical officials continue to say the best way to fight the pandemic is through hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks when interacting with others in the community.

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