The big jump in coronavirus cases (and case counts, statisticians say, are of limited value without strong random testing as a baseline) hasn’t moved Gov. Asa Hutchinson off the defense of his “targeted” restrictions on activities in response. Two more deaths were reported, for a total of 16, 12 of them 65 or older.
He defended resistance to a stay-home directive on “Meet the Press” and again at his daily press briefing. The points were familiar: Our rules are as restrictive as some states with stay-home orders and the state’s “guidance” (if not orders) is in line with CDC recommendations.
One specific defense: Stay at home might not work. He reported on “Meet the Press” that the confirmed cases in the federal prison in Forrest City were up to 14, 10 inmates and four employees. They’re staying at home, he noted. Well, yes, prisons are a problem. But a lemon versus an apple, seems to me.
The case count is now up to 830 cases, with 67 hospitalized, up from 743, with 72 hospitalized yesterday. The new cases include the 14 in Forrest City, and 15 to 20 more are exhibiting symptoms. Yell and Phillips are new to the list of counties with cases, now up to 64.
Smith said the CDC will send a team to help investigate the situation at the Forrest City prison.
The jump was the biggest single-day increase, but Health Director Nate Smith said the “two-day” average was around 60, more in keeping with recent experience. He said 114 health care workers have tested positive.
The governor continued to insist that the caseload is well below the state’s projections of 2,000. He complimented the state for taking steps to reduce the spread of the virus. Many questions remain on whether the projection on cases is based on actual testing and whether it’s reliable. We also don’t know about false negatives, deaths of people not tested who had the disease and the rate among the untested.
But the governor also continued to exhort people to follow social distancing and said he’ll begin wearing a mask when he goes to places where it might be difficult to maintain distance. Call it “Arkansas Fashion Week,” as he urged people to have a little fun in making masks.
The governor brought in Heather Larkin of Arkansas Community Foundation and Laura Landreaux, CEO of Entergy, to talk about efforts to help the unemployed (an estimated 100,000 more by the end of this week, the governor said) and others.
The governor said the state endorsed the Foundation’s COVID-19 relief fund as a preferred place to send contributions. Larkin said $2 million had been pledged to the fund so far. It will benefits nonprofits that serve those most in need. ACF has already issued 175 grants.
Landreaux said Entergy has temporarily suspended disconnects for non-payment and will continue to work with customers to help them recover. She also announced a $100,000 contribution from Entergy to the relief fund.
The question session:
Dr. Anthony Fauci’s continued warnings about the need for strong action came up again. Hutchinson contended Arkansas’s trend line is different from what’s being seen in other hot spots. He said it could worsen, but the state is making sure it has resources if things get worse. Smith was similarly upbeat. He pointed to the hospital load, which is far below what others are experiencing. Predictions are dangerous, he said, “but where we are right now it would be very very difficult for us to get numbers as high as projected.”
Given the federal prison outbreak, Hutchinson was asked whether he’d considered some release from state lockups. Some counties have taken such steps, he said, particularly on pending cases. People sentenced to prison are different, he said, and there’s no plan to release any of those on account of the crisis. “but if there’s an outbreak, we’ll have to make judgments moment by moment.”
Why is the state giving churches an option to remain open? “Because churches, by and large, do the right thing,” Hutchinson said. He said most are worshipping on-line, though there are a few with small attendance that continue to have services. But what if others attempt to follow the example of the church in Jonesboro, which Hutchinson backed off closing down when it agreed to a set of guidelines? “It’s the gathering of people, not the activity that we’re concerned about,” Smith said.
How is the state fixed for ventilators? Smith said the inventory is 785. Of those 551 were available, so 235 were in use. The state can absorb some increase.
What’s being done in the Forrest City prison? Segregating prisoners with symptoms, for one thing, though Smith acknowledged this isn’t easy in a prison.
Counties with no cases still should follow guidelines on the presumption that the virus could be there. The 11 counties are rural with very low test rates.
Smith said “almost all” the testing total, 11,488, are tests of individual people and do not count multiple tests of the same person, as sometimes happens.
The state is a week or two away from a procedure for people who’ve recovered from the virus to give plasma in a search for antibodies.
Smith and Hutchinson said they had not been tested. Both haven’t shown symptoms, generally required for testing.
Will the state enforce restrictions on elective surgery? Smith said it’s important that necessary surgeries be done. If the state hears cases are being scheduled that are clearly not time-sensitive or put a patient at risk from virus exposure, Smith said the state would take action.
Hutchinson was asked if it made sense for the state to have to acquire their own “weapons,” to use a war analogy, in the fight. Hutchinson said Arkansas had lost out in one case with another state and that there is a competition across the board for a limited supply. “It’s a challenge,” Hutchinson said. But, as he did earlier on “Meet the Press,” he would not join Gov. Jay Inslee in others in criticizing the federal government to turn the matter over to the states. He said Mike Pence had assured him if the state needed critical equipment it would be helped.