Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s daily coronavirus briefing included news of another day with triple-digit new cases, 151, and a new peak in the rising seven-day rolling average.
The governor continued to emphasize positives: A low rate of positives from a rising number of tests and a total number of cases below predictions about where the state would be on this date. But the number isn’t falling and the governor said a new UAMS prediction shows 8,500 cases by June 3.
He insisted the state did well over the weekend in following social distancing guidelines despite publicity about crowds as such places as Lake Hamilton and Greers Ferry Lake. He said the national media focused on isolated instances. “That is a concern to me,” he said. “But you also want to recognize how many people in Arkansas did the right thing.”
But he said some had put themselves ahead of others and said the state was at a “critical point.” The direction “totally depends on the discipline and commitment of the people of Arkansas to avoid circumstances in which they’ll contribute to the spread.”
Personnel news today from the governor: Health Department Director Nate Smith will be leaving Arkansas for a job with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta effective Aug. 28. He will succeed the retiring deputy director, Dr. Stephen Redd. The governor named Dr. Jose Romero, a pediatric infectious disease specialist on the faculty of UAMS and staff of Children’s Hospital, as interim director. He praised Smith’s work and said Romero was similarly qualified.
Smith said the increase in cases so far didn’t seem to come from businesses recently reopened. He said responsibility remains more with individual decisions on wearing masks, keeping distance and avoiding large groups.
Smith in discussing numbers today said confirmed cases have been found disproportionately among black people, about 37 percent of the case against about 16 percent of the state’s overall population. The death rate has also been about 37 percent.
Young people aren’t immune. The largest percentage of cases, 39 percent, is among those aged 25 to 44.
He said some had asked why the concern about a disease that might kill 1 percent of the population. That would mean 30,000 in Arkansas, Smith said, “and that’s not acceptable.”
The coronavirus count
The number of cases rose by 151 from 6,029 yesterday to 6,180 (only one a prison case). Hospitalizations went from 99 to 107, close to the highest number since the crisis began. Deaths rose by two to 119. Testing is good news, the governor said. The state did 2,984 tests in a day, with a 3.3 percent positivity rate. The low rate is well below the national standard, Hutchinson said. He said the state had done 61,000 tests in May, beyond a goal of 60,000 for the full month set earlier.
The seven-day rolling average is at a new peak, with possibly more to come, the governor warned.
The state has 1,729 active cases, with 72 in nursing homes and 466 in prisons.
Of case growth in the last 24 hours, 29 came from Washington County, 17 from Sevier County, 16 from Benton County and 13 from St. Francis County. All other counties had fewer than 10.
Smith said 301 poultry workers had tested positive, with 69 from Benton County, 54 from Yell County and 44 from Washington County. The governor acknowledged a connection between these numbers and cases among Hispanics and poultry workers. He said the state was taking steps to attempt to address that.
The subject came up when the governor was asked about a New York Times article today that put the Fayetteville-Springdale area at the top of places where outbreaks were likely to occur.
Other coronavirus topics
The state Education and Human Services Departments announced today that they’d received federal approval to make payments to families with children in the free and reduced-price lunch program for school days missed in March, April and May. Families will receive $319 per student, either in credits for SNAP (food stamp) benefits or another electronic card. They’ll have 12 months to use the benefit.
The governor said 15,000 had received pandemic unemployment assistance checks and another 10,000 were potentially eligible.
Is the state doing anything about large gatherings on lakes in Arkansas reported over the weekend? “This is something we will look into,” the governor said. But he added, “We’re not exactly sure what can be done there. It’s a matter of self-discipline. We’re not a heavy police state.” But he said the state would look into doing more to “encourage” safe behavior. He said the state only has “guidelines,” not laws on gatherings.
The governor said activity in state parks went well over the weekend. He said one crowded trail had to be closed.
The governor refused to provide any more general information about a swim party in Paragould that resulted in positive cases. He said there were privacy issues, though, for example, much more was revealed about the church at Greers Ferry that experienced a mass outbreak early in the crisis.
The governor was asked what he could do to de-politicize the growing partisan divide on public behavior. “All I can do is set a good example and I’ve done that.”
He said there’s a need to drill into people that wearing a mask is not just about your own health but the health of others.
Why did he open up bars with rising cases? “We’ve done that with strict requirements,” the governor said, “and I’m delight they’re paying attention to those.” He said these are business owners with investments and employes. “We want them to be able to make a living.”
Why aren’t the Governor’s Mansion and Capitol open to the public since everything else is? The Mansion will follow the same rules any facility with large gatherings follow and he hopes to reopen it to gatherings again soon. He didn’t address the Capitol, currently open only to staff members and in many officers people still work at home.