Announcements at Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s coronavirus briefing today including a somewhat unscripted disclosure of a continued dramatic rise in the number of coronavirus cases at Cummins Prison.

Today’s highlights:

  • The number of prison cases is not officially confirmed or included in the numbers released today, but Dr. Jennifer Dillaha of the Health Department, mentioned during questioning but not during opening prepared remarks, that 230 inmates at Cummins prison havetested positive for corona, compared with 129 reported yesterday. Again: That number is NOT included in the daily state total shown above and the governor indicated in the future the prison count may be tallied separately from state numbers.
  • $10 million will be distributed to 27 hospitals from a federal grant program, from $250,000 to $500,000 each. UAMS will get $500,000 for telemedicine in rural areas.
  • To reach the May 4 goal of reopening some of the Arkansas economy, Hutchinson said he’d created an economic recovery task force to be chaired by Sam Walton grandson, Steuart Walton. He’s heavily invested in the hospitality business in Northwest Arkansas and has a family in retail, the governor noted. The group’s work is about recognition of the “small business person,” Hutchinson said. 26 or 27 others will join the group, representing different fields of the economy, including sports and churches and state bureaucrats. I’ll link the full list when it’s distributed. Hutchinson said he aims to reopen in a way people can be confident. People won’t go to a reopened restaurant if they don’t feel safe, he said.  The group will be making recommendations to the governor and industry groups. It should begin meeting next week. Here’s the order on the task force with the members. Don’t bother to look if you expect to find a union representative or somebody from the rank-and-file who might have thoughts on safety of workers. If a big business lobbyist is your lodestar, you are covered.
  • The governor demonstrated one of 88 Abbott Labs machines that can do quick COVID-19 testing. But it takes a kit to place in the machine to operate and they are backlogged.
  • Dr. Jennifer Dillaha of the Health Department, in her statistical rundown, said 22 people are on ventilators today. About 30 percent of those infected are black, about double their proportion in the Arkansas population. She emphasized that older people are the most vulnerable to serious illness (the new death was a person older than 65), but she also noted a significant percentage in younger age groups. It can strike anyone, she said. Dillaha said 86 people are hospitalized statewide, down from 93 yesterday. That number is likely to grow, the governor said. It’s not known if this includes inmates hospitalized in prison infirmaries.
  • UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson said testing is a challenge everywhere, but particularly in communities that don’t have screening services to identify candidates for testing. He said UAMS has a mobile unit that is traveling the state to fill that gap. It has screened more than 400, tested more than 180 and found only one positive test. “This should be a big relief to people who live in those communities,” he said. The unit went to Forrest City and Texarkana this week. Marianna and Camden are among the coming stops.

DR. JENNIFER DILLHA: Discloses increase in prison coronavirus cases.

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The case count reported today, not counting prisoners, was up only 44 from the 1,695 reported yesterday afternoon to 1,739. There’s also one additional death. A concentrated effort with the help of the VA ramped up testing at the Cummins unit after an initial outbreak was discovered in one barrack, a factor mentioned only in passing by the governor and not included in today’s total. It was during a later Q&A session that Dillaha disclosed the 230 positive tests among some 1,000 that have been performed. She said all were inmates and no staff members had tested positive.

The governor had emphasized yesterday and said again today that many of Arkansas’s cases were concentrated in prisons — Cummins, a federal prison and a community corrections unit in Little Rock.

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Several have commented elsewhere: “So that doesn’t count?”

Of course, it does, at least in my opinion. As do the nursing homes with multiple cases. Apart from the fact that prisoners and old people are humans, too, all these institutions employ people who circulate in the community.

During the Q&A session, the governor was asked if he intended to separate cases in group settings from the overall number, such as prisons and nursing homes. “We have not separated those in the past,” he said, but “when you look at the future I do believe there is some merit to have an honest look at Arkansas that we separate those numbers in a congregant setting, like the prisons.” He said an extraordinary amount of testing is being done there and “it really skews the reporting.” He said they’d likely be shown in a different light, but a transparent way.

But what about the guards who are in contact with prisoners but also the outside world? “All that will be transparent and reported,” the governor said.

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We are still mostly testing only those with symptoms in Arkansas. That’s a recent improvement. We once couldn’t test all with symptoms. But the asymptomatic transmit the disease too. And we’ve yet to get an answer from multiple questions to the Health Department about death rates. Are they higher than normal here, as in New York City, which might suggest undiagnosed virus deaths?

It seems unlikely we are a point where anyone could claim a firm idea of the infection rate in Arkansas.

The hopeful talk by Arkansas officials on easing back into normalcy beginning May 4 comes as new research from Harvard suggests testing must be increased dramatically before the state can reopen.  The country is currently averaging 45 tests per 100,000 people a day. They say the number should triple, to 152. Arkansas is averaging 35 tests a day, according to data in the article. From a New York Times graphic:

A somewhat related question in the Q&A session: What if some in business think May 4 is too early for their particular industry? It’s not a strict date for all, Hutchinson said. He also said safety precautions — social distancing, hand washing — will remain in place. “Lifting of these restrictions we have in place now really will be guided by the public health team.”