Tuesday’s coronavirus (COVID-19) update began with Gov. Asa Hutchinson announcing an increase of 50 more positive cases and another death of a person, making for eight deaths related to COVID-19 in Arkansas. The victim, who was over 65-years-old, died at the White River Medical Center in Batesville.
Since Monday’s press briefing, Arkansas went from 473 to 523 positive cases on Tuesday with an additional two people being hospitalized, bringing that total to 64. There have been 5,959 in Arkansas who have tested negative. There are also three new counties with positive cases.
Monday, a member of the media referenced a New York Times article stating Arkansas was in the bottom five states when it came to per capita testing.
Gov. Hutchinson had a chance to look at the article and commented, “Some numbers were out of date. The story showed 1,839 tests were done in Arkansas and we have 5,794 tests that have been done. Our testing has accelerated in recent weeks.”
The number had risen since Hutchinson read the article. Arkansas on Tuesday had completed 6,482 tests.
Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) Director Dr. Nate Smith gave the statistics update:
3 new counties infected: Columbia, Newton and Perry
51 of 75 Arkansas counties infected
60% women vs. 40% men (approximately)
158 age 65 years and older
348 age 18-64
74% Caucasian, 15% African American, 11% Other (no update provided from previous day)
6 pregnant women (no update provided from previous day)
44 with diabetes
39 with heart disease
23 with chronic lung disease
12 with chronic kidney disease
16 with immuno-compromising conditions
71 related to domestic travel
47 in nursing homes
23 currently on ventilator
79 healthcare workers
Adding to the governor’s words about testing, Smith said, “There is a national shortage of reagents. We’ve had to go to a manual extraction process in our lab, which limits us somewhat.”
On Monday, ADH completed 94 tests and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) completed 83. Sunday, UAMS had managed less than 50 tests. ADH now has the personnel trained and plan on doing testing 24/7 as long as they have reagents and supplies to increase and optimize testing capability.
Meanwhile, Smith said that testing at the Briarwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center has been completed. Testing of all residents and workers at the other four nursing homes is still going on.
Smith also said the ADH was in the process of planning, along with the Arkansas National Guard, to build the surge capacity for hospitalized patients. The goal is to increase hospital beds beyond current accommodations if needed.
Hutchinson said he has approved 40 additional Air and Army National Guard to assist in the effort.
Guidelines for returning to work
Dr. Smith provided ADH guidelines, which follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, for returning to work for those who have either tested positive or have been exposed to a person testing positive for COVID-19.
Smith said, “If a person has not been sick enough to go into the hospital, if they’re seven days past the onset of their illness and it’s been at least three days since they’ve had a fever, then it’s safe to return to work.
“There are some situations where a healthcare worker is taking care of high-risk patients where they may have additional criteria, they may want them to stay out longer.”
Someone who has been exposed to someone who has a positive case and goes home to self-quarantine, and they are not tested because they don’t have any symptoms, need to wait a minimum of 14 days.
Smith said, “That covers the incubation period between when someone gets infected and then shows signs or symptoms.”
Smith said it may seem strange, but it’s a time issue.
“The person who is a case has already gone through that incubation period. For the person who has been exposed to a case, we’ve got to wait the whole incubation period.”
For someone who is exposed and doesn’t realize they’re sick may go back to work after seven days and start a chain reaction.
Smith said, “If someone exposed goes back after seven days and they become sick the next day, then they’ve exposed a bunch of people there. Then they have to be quarantined. Before long, everyone at your work site will have to be quarantined. You’re not doing anyone a favor by coming back early. You may actually be creating more of a manpower shortage.”
Smith said that the ADH will soon be placing a graphic on their website to illustrate when people should return to work.
Projection vs. actual COVID-19 cases
Hutchinson displayed a modeling graph showing healthcare professionals' projection of how many COVID-19 cases Arkansas would have vs. the actual number of cases up through April 10. So far, Arkansas cases are below the predicted number. The blue line reveals the numbers originally predicted, rising to 3,500 cases by April 10.
Hutchinson said, “We have actually lowered the trend. The red line means we’re having success with social distancing. We’re having success with the guidelines that have been set with limitations on gatherings. If we continue to follow the CDC guidelines and Arkansas Health Department, we’re hoping to stay under that blue line. That’s our objective. That saves lives.”
Dr. Smith added that the projection was made when the state was at an even lower capacity for testing than it currently is for testing. He said, “There’s a danger we could overshoot our projection because our testing capacity is so low in the first couple of weeks. We’ve expanded that. We continue to get more and more lab test results from commercial labs.”
Out-of-state visitation may force park closures
Although the governor was proud of most Arkansans following the directives and guidelines, he said he and others were most concerned about out-of-state visitors. The hospitality industry is the second largest industry in the state. It is a $5.6 billion industry and employees over 100,000 people. Many people come from not just adjoining states, but from all over to visit the many state parks, national parks and rivers, and popular locales for a weekend getaway or vacation.
Hutchinson said, “They are coming to enjoy our wonderful outdoors as we’ve always asked them to come here to enjoy our national and state parks, but it has become a problem. I have received reports that there are large congregations of people along the Buffalo River and some of our state parks that are most popular. While you can practice social distancing there, it’s not being followed sufficiently. The number of out-of-state travelers is creating the issue because some of them are coming from hotspots that we want to be able to limit and restrict.”
Approximately a week after The 46th Annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism had concluded in Fort Smith, the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Pine Bluff. Many of the businesses, groups and facilities that were at the conference from Arkansas and surrounding states were showing people what they had to offer in tourism. In less than three weeks, many of those same attendees are now totally closed to the public or have limited access. Hutchinson has asked his administration for ideas on ways to temporarily curtail visitation of recreational travelers.
In what boils down to a dichotomous decision, Hutchinson said, “It may involve some closing of our most frequently visited state parks. We want to be able to limit that out-of-state traveler.”
Arkansas is in communication with the National Park Service regarding the Buffalo National River. He said officials in Newton County have made requests to shut down access to access points. Some concessionaires have closed their businesses out of concern for all of the out-of-state visitors.
Hutchinson said, “It’s also about our high-traffic state parks that are popular. When you see Texas doing more inspections of people coming from Louisiana, are they going to be coming up this direction.”
The dilemma is a combination of having enough manpower resource to the level checking without also impeding commerce. Hutchinson also mentioned that workers such as those who live near the state borders, need to be able to go across state lines to work. Which means leaving the roads open and not closing off the state. He said he’s not considering a checkpoint at the state lines at the moment.
Hutchinson said, “In my view, if you want to reduce the flow of out-of-state visitors, you are going to have to close some of the attractions that bring them here. They’re not only [congregating] outdoors, but they might be stopping somewhere along the line for gas. They might be touching counters. It just increases the risk.”
Stacy Hurst, secretary of Parks, Heritage and Tourism has been asked to make recommendations about any parks she is concerned about.
Unemployment Insurance claims and loans
Hutchinson had estimated Arkansas had around 30,000 Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims by the previous Friday. Tuesday, he stated the estimated UI claims exceed 30,000 but altered the number for last Friday to 27,250.
Hutchinson said 20-30 new staff people have been brought in at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to train and man the phones. They’ve invested in new IT systems and hope to improve the acceleration of people being able to get through.
As bridge loan programs for small business, 250 applications have been received. Hutchinson said most are smaller loans, which are direct ADC (acquisition, development, or construction) loans. The larger loans go through the banks and take longer to process.
Hutchinson said, “We expect to have all $3 million dollars of those loans out early next week because of the demand.”
Hutchinson said he signed a letter declaring Arkansas a Major Disaster State because of COVID-19. He expects a quick federal government response from FEMA to his disaster request. It gives the state quick access to federal funding for a disaster, up to $5 million. Any amount higher than that requires additional approval.
A major disaster declaration provides a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work.
Hutchinson gave an example regarding the National Guard being utilized as “on the state’s dime.” Once the disaster approval goes through, it will be reimbursed by the federal government.
Notary action in person suspended
An executive order was signed at the request of the Arkansas Bar Association, the realtors and the title companies which suspends notary action in person. Notaries and wills can be done by audio and visual means. The order is limited-use for attorneys, notaries, title companies and those supervised by them or by banks.
Because of the consequences of social limitation, Hutchinson said, “This will allow those that need a will, that they haven’t been prepared for, to be able to get it done even if they are in isolation or unable to because of limitations of person-to-person contact. They will be able to execute the will or transfer of property. This is another thing that has to be done and remedied in this time of emergency.”
DHS working remotely for ensuring safety
Department of Human Services Deputy Director for Children, Youth and Families Keesa Smith said, “Our staff are making sure that we are providing a safety net for those Arkansans most in need or found themselves in need unexpectedly because of COVID-19.”
Because many state workers, including DHS personnel, are working remotely, the department has been given permission by the federal government to take Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications by phone and waive interviews. She mentioned that some employees still have to be available to process the increase in applications or to assist those who do not have phone or Internet access.
The DHS Division of Family Services are still working to keep children safe across Arkansas. She referenced an incident from the previous week where a 10-year-old was being physically abused. The alleged abuser was “putting up roadblocks” to prevent DHS from entering the home. DHS persisted and finally was able to speak to the child, entering the home. He was removed from the domicile and is now living with relatives.
Ms. Smith said that DHS has started a new venture. “We have about 15,000 clients who receive home health services. Many of these individuals are homebound. Unlike individuals in nursing homes or assisted care, they don’t have anyone coming in and seeing about them everyday.”
The agency had some of their divisions come together to create a way to check on those people. They created a call center to make sure that all 15,000-plus clients receive at least two phone calls per week to ensure they weren’t having any problems.
Shortly after they began the call center they received a call from a person who said she was okay, but they were low on food and had no electricity. DHS discovered the person was on oxygen and not a portable machine, but a machine that required electricity.
DHS had a regional staff member go to the home to make sure the client was safe.
Another staff member called the client’s children to notify them so they could get food to their mother.
DHS called Entergy to get the power turned back on that day. The regional staff member also informed the neighbor what was going on. The neighbor offered to run an extension cord from their house to the client’s house in the meantime to make sure they had power for oxygen.
Ms. Smith said, “It’s just a story to show that even in the midst of trying times, we have individuals that are working hard, Arkansans that are caring for other Arkansans and making sure they are taken care of.”
Education is still happening
Hutchinson said that the state and Arkansas Department of Education are working with Arkansas PBS (formerly AETN) to provide education to those who don’t have high-speed internet for accessing Alternate Method of Instruction (AMI) .
Arkansas PBS, in partnership with Arkansas Department of Education’s Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, is working to keep students learning from home in response to COVID-19 with Arkansas AMI.
Arkansas PBS will broadcast streamlined, curriculum-based programming for the state’s pre-K through 8th grade students in response to mandatory school closures due to the coronavirus. Utilizing the power of television, broadcast content will be specifically targeted to children enrolled in pre-K through the 8th grade. More information can be found at http://www.myarkansaspbs.org.
President Trump’s order for social distancing until at least April 30 is something Arkansas has to consider before returning back to school. The date for returning was recently postponed until April 17.
Hutchinson said, “Even if (students) don’t have access to the Internet, they usually have access to public television. It’s a good remedy. Down in the Texarkana area, some are linked to Texas public television. This is the broadest platform available and it covers that gap.”
Sebastian County as of Tuesday had the most positive cases (7) in the immediate west central region of Arkansas. Other counties in the area had four or less.
Oklahoma had six new deaths since Monday, bringing the state’s total to 23. None of the deaths were in counties adjacent to Arkansas.