Today’s state update takes the count to 118.

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26 counties now have cases, with the addition of Sebastian.

KARK 4 News
DISTANCING: At health agency.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other state officials updated the situation at 1:30 p.m. Seats were spaced to maintain distance between news people.

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Hutchinson spoke about the future and to the people of the state about steps to take.

Best estimates are that the state will likely reach the peak of the spread of the illness in six to eight weeks, he said. That would mean 1,000 hospitalized patients, which would strain the hospital system, the economy and endanger lives.

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This is where we need everyone’s help.  He said the state has asked for social distancing, hand-washing, avoidance of groups and unnecessary travel. “We are doing all we can as a state to flatten the peak, but we need your help to engage in these commonsense protective measures.”

If the state is successful, the state won’t have to go to more extreme measures such as “shelter in place” rules in other states.

If the peak can be kept lower, it will be good, he said. For now, he said, “We produce, we work and we adjust and we support each other.”

Health Director Nate Smith said the age breakdown of confined cases was: 9 children, 77 aged 19 to 64 and 32 aged 65 and older. Breakdown by race: 21 percent black and 68 percent white. He said 33 were hospitalized, seven in ICU. Four have been on ventilators. He said some of the new cases today came from the three nursing homes identified Friday. All testing of residents and staff has not been completed.

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UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson said he believed the system could cope with the expected burden. He said testing capacity should expand exponentially next week, with shorter turnaround time. This will identify people in need of treatment faster and in greater numbers.

Question: When did the state get its first warning? This arose from the news today that intelligence information went to the White House as early as January. The governor said his information primarily came from public information in the media. He wasn’t sure of a specific date.

Any estimates on the percentage who’ll be infected? From 27 percent up to 45 percent, Surgeon General Gregory Bledsoe said, but it’s hard to be sure because some people will be asymptomatic.

What level of infection would require a shelter-in-place order? Hutchinson:

If we do what we’re supposed to do … we’ll meet our goal, we’ll reduce our trend line and we won’t have to go to those extreme measures.

But there is no plan for a shutdown point and experience in other states will guide a decision here, Smith said. Hospital admissions will be an important yardstick, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said the state expected a revenue hit from the pandemic, maybe a $100 million drop in the state tax take in the next three months. This is before a decision on delaying state income tax returns and how to change the state budget for the year beginning July 1.

He said he couldn’t comment on a question about frequent conflicts in messaging between health experts such as the NIH’s Anthony Fauci and President Donald Trump.

UPDATE: After the briefing, Patterson said UAMS does not expect to run into trouble with having enough ventilators for patients. It is ordering other personal protection equipment — N95 masks and face shields — but he could not say when those supplies will come in. Swabs are in such short supply that medics are resorting to using flu swabs, which are designed for the task. He also said plans are being made on how to handle the influx of patients, such as staffing unstaffed beds or using other facilities.

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UAMS will be able to screen between 750 and 800 patients a day starting next week. Expect the case numbers to explode.

Asked about recommending the malaria treatment chloroquin to people hoping it can stave off COVID-19 infection, a treatment that is untested, unrecommended by Dr. Fauci but which Trump says he “feels good about,” Patterson gave a careful answer: He would not support a run on a drug that is important to people who need it.

Veteran journalist Steve Barnes was unable to get either Hutchinson or Patterson to criticize inaction by the government to inform states and the medical community about the threat of the new virus to the U.S., but Patterson did say he wished “we had all the supplies when this began 10 days ago,” which could have happened had the Trump administration taken action on the information of its intelligence agencies.