Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced today that the state would lift a prohibition on elective medical procedures Monday, April 27. Does that include surgical abortion? Unclear.

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The governor also set a timeline for potential decisions in the next week on lifting restrictions on restaurants, gyms, beauty and barbershops and churches and large venues.

And the situation appears to be worsening at Cummis prison.

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As to the easing on health procedures, the governor said the state was comfortable with this change because of the slow growth of cases in Arkansas and sufficient medical facilities and protective gear. This will come with some restrictions.

Health Director Nate Smith said the rules on health facilities would be finished later today or tomorrow.

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The rules will be “incremental,” he said, and begin with day surgery and people who are “not as sick.” Patients will be required not to have been in contact with an infected person, not have symptoms and be tested 48 hours before a procedure, Rural hospitals are excluded from the rules. He said facilities also will be encouraged to move slowly in terms of the number of people seen each day.

They were asked whether this change applied to the state’s only abortion clinic, put out of business today by an 8th Circuit ruling. Hutchinson talked around a specific answer but finally said  “all the clinics will be impacted in the same way” by the new Department of Health directive.

Health Director Smith said: “As with any other surgical center, they will be required to comply with all conditions, including making sure their patients are tested within 48 hours.”

Asked again directly, if surgical abortions could resume Monday, Smith said, “That will depend on what facility decides they can do and whether they can comply with the directive.”

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He was asked about the testing requirement, given the difficulty people have reported in getting tests, particularly asymptomatic people. Smith said that’s why a 48-hour window had been allowed for facilities. He said clinics will need to get a good arrangement with a testing lab to get tests done in a timely fashion. Some labs have quicker testing tools.

As to the timeline for other businesses, the governor said the timeline doesn’t mean these restrictions WILL be lifted by May 4. But an announcement can be expected by the dates listed. They likely will come with guidance on how these places should open and maintain safe practices. “Large venues” could include sporting events, the governor said. Casinos are not listed and are still under consideration. An order closing them expires on April 30.

Masks, social distancing and limitations on gatherings will still exist, even with a return of some places to business.

The governor said the state was comfortable with moving ahead because of the slow growth of coronavirus in Arkansas and sufficient medical facilities that don’t appear stressed by treating virus patients.

The question of case growth isn’t so easily answered.

The count today was put at 2,276, up 49 from yesterday and including 13 from Cummins prison. There’s still not a firm report on how many cases of about 695 at Cummins among staff (14) and (681) inmates are included in the statewide total. Smith said he thought “most” were. But he offered no estimate.

Furthermore, Smith said more barracks are going to be tested at Cummins, along with staff, and he expects this number to rise further

The governor continued to emphasize a chart that indicated a decline in the daily count of new cases, but only when prison cases are excluded.

It also was reported that hospitalizations rose from 86 yesterday to 97 today. The death count was reduced from 43 to 42 because a Missouri resident who died in Arkansas is no longer counted.

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Smith again defended the state’s limits on the use of antibody tests, which can identify people who’ve had the disease and could be candidates to donate plasma for treatment. Some tests aren’t reliable for diagnosing current infections, he said.

My observation: The governor always lists economic needs ahead of health needs when naming the two big problems facing the state.

UPDATE: I also meant to say Dr. Smith dismissed for the second day projections by University of Washington researchers that say Arkansas won’t have enough of a decline in cases to safely open for business until June 8 or later. Smith said Arkansas should have only a small handful of cases then and they’d be easily manageable.

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