Governor Hutchinson reported a one-day drop in new COVID-19 cases, but testing was down over the holiday weekend and hospitalizations continued to increase in the state. The big emphasis today was on the need for more and faster testing and quicker contact tracing.
The daily coronavirus count
Arkansas recorded 439 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours (eight from prisons), increasing the state total from 23,814 to 24,253. Deaths rose by five to 292. Hospitalizations increased by 12 to 337. Active cases dropped a bit, to 6,127.
Top counties in the last 24 hours: Washington, 77; Pulaski, 46; Yell, 36, and Benton, 36.
Tests performed in 24 hours: 3,615. It was over 10 percent. “It’s not where we want it to be,” Hutchinson said. “It obviously reflects some spread in the community.”
Hutchinson said the state had hired General Dynamics for $20 million to add 350 contract tracers for a year and another $20 million contract for another 350 tracers is in the works. Altogether, the state will have 1,000 people working on contact tracing. He said that will be reviewed in the future to see if it’s enough.
Stephanie Williams of the Health Department said the agency was attempting to speed contact tracing because delays allow people who’ve tested positive to continue to spread the virus. She said people who’d like to do the work should go to the General Dynamics website to inquire.
The governor acknowledged that testing labs were having difficulty keeping up with demand, which delays results. He said he’d talked to the White House about this and said he’d expressed the belief this “needs to be fixed.” The shortage of reagents used in the testing is critical, Health Director Nate Smith said.
Asked about compliance with health guidelines, Hutchinson said there’d been a lot of “good behavior” over the weekend, but there was a concern about behavior “that was not good or helpful. Whenever we can do something about that, we will.”
He said the closure Saturday of Brewski’s in Little Rock was an example.
The state doesn’t have a clue about the sources of a continuing rise in cases in Central Arkansas. “It is pretty widespread,” Smith said. There’s not a particular place to focus, such as the poultry plants in other parts of the state. This makes it harder to address.
He was asked about virus linked to churches. It’s been a sensitive subject and churches have been objected to being identified as potential sources when they’ve been following guidelines. Smith said the state wasn’t seeing any “growing clusters” at churches currently.
UPDATE: Smith, in an interview after the news conference, reiterated his concern about the active cases in Pulaski County. The numbers aren’t as high as Northwest, where the outbreak is related largely to congregate settings — poultry factories — but he said the numbers are “worrisome, looking at what we’ve seen in neighboring states. This is not a time to go out.”
Asked, too, if contact tracing is futile, as the lag time in getting reports of positive cases, the difficulty in reaching people and an increase in demand for tracers when testing goes up would suggest, Smith said, “Well, that’s kind of like saying the world is either all black or all white.
“Contact tracing is invaluable to manage discrete outbreaks, which is really what we see here in Arkansas. When you get to where you have widespread, lots of active cases, so much transmission that it’s really not possible to trace where someone became infected then as a single tool it’s not enough.” That’s where the public’s efforts are necessary to prevent spread.
Contact tracers do prioritize, seeking information from health care workers first and those whose infection is in the early stage. However, “at this point, we’re reaching out to everyone,” he said.
On the closure of Brewski’s, Smith said the health department received had complaints about crowding and a lack of masks, and sent its employees to investigate. After the COVID-19 cases were reported, agents of Alcoholic Beverage Control paid a follow-up visit, and were told by the management that there was “nothing they could do about this,” Smith said. “That prompted us to take action.”
It’s not just bar owners who need to act responsibly, Smith said; he noted the 230 patrons of Brewski’s who showed up for dining and an “ill-advised” karaoke night without observing precautions “have some culpability as well.”
As for contact-tracing of those who might have come into contact with the employees of Brewski’s, Smith said the ADH can use video footage.
“Unfortunately, we’ve got some folks who think [COVID-19] it’s a hoax, it’s not as serious as they make it out to be, and others who say there’s nothing we can do about it, everybody’s going to get infected. And neither of those is true. The common denominator between those two is believing those lets you off the hook. The problem is if you don’t do anything, we will see those numbers come up and the problem is it’s not going just be healthy young people. They’ll infect others and we’ll have increased numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.
Also from Stephanie Williams: If you get a call from 877-272-6819, answer it. It’s the health department calling.