ANTIGEN TESTING: The governor released this data for the first time. It’s a quicker, less reliable test and results aren’t counted in official statistics.

Governor Hutchinson said again today he was not wavering from starting school the week of Aug. 24.

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The question arose after Interim Health Director Jose Romero was asked about a conference call he’d had today with school superintendents. He answered mostly in general terms. One superintendent on the call told me that Romera had characterized the opening date Aug. 24 as something of a “grand experiment,” as the superintendent put it. He reportedly told administrators he couldn’t predict how it would turn out.

At the briefing, Romero said the conversation was wide ranging and he got many good questions, some that could be answered specifically, some not yet. For example, are food service workers considered “essential” in terms of reporting to work? He also said some central testing locations will be established to handle school testing.

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But as for the opening date, he said only: “Clearly it’s a moving target. As the date approaches, we’ll give more concrete information.”

But should schools open Aug. 24? “I would not dare change the date. That is not my job,” Romero said.

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Hutchinson then stepped in. “We’re starting school the week of Aug. 24.” He said his “resolve was strengthened” by visits around the state. Parents, children and school people want to resume school. “Obviously there’s nervous and uncertainty,” he said, just as there is in any business. Letters sent recently to the state Board of Education were overwhelmingly negative about resumption of in-person classes.

Hutchinson also announced that he’d have news Friday on state guidelines for resumption of high school contact sports, such as football, cheerleading and volleyball. Given his tone today, despite Arkansas’s ranking as one of 13 states that should go into lockdown on account of its rate of new COVID-19 cases, I’d predict sports will be back on.

The daily COVID-19 count

Arkansas added 791 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours (32 in prisons), for a total so far of 41,559. Hospitalizations declined by 4 to 504. 101 are on ventilators. Deaths rose by 8 to 442. Active cases: 6,580.

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The top counties for new cases in 24 hours: Pulaski, 73; Sebastian, 57; Benton, 47; Garland, 44; Washington, 37; Independence, 34; Jefferson, 31; Pope, 30; Craighead, 29; Mississippi, 23, and Faulkner, 21.

Tests completed in the last 24 hours: 5,598.

Other topics

The governor announced he’d activated 14 more National Guard members to help the Health Department.

Romero announced that elective surgery patients would no longer be required to have coronavirus testing in advance. He said a very small percentage of positives (about 1 percent) were found in testing done to date. The directive will now leave testing up to the institution or doctor. It is “prudent” in some cases given the prevalence in some communities, he said. UPDATE: The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will continue testing surgical patients for COVID-19 before elective procedures. Dr. Steppe Mette, the senior vice chancellor for UAMS Health and CEO of the medical center, sent a message to staff about the decision:

Today, the Arkansas Department of Health announced that it is lifting the state directive requiring COVID-19 testing for all patients before undergoing an elective procedure. The decision on testing patients is being left up to hospitals, health systems and physicians. UAMS Health plans to continue testing patients for COVID-19 prior to undergoing an elective procedure in an effort to provide the highest level of safety and security for our patients and staff.

Aerosolizing procedures during surgery place operating room staff at greater risk of infection. Because all of our pre-procedure patients who have tested positive were asymptomatic and there is a high level of asymptomatic cases in the community, continuing to test provides an added layer of information and protection in addition to other universal precautions.

We realize pre-procedure testing is an added step that may be inconvenient for our patients but we believe it is important in assuring patients and our health care staff that we are taking every precaution to keep them safe. Thank you for your continued efforts to fight this pandemic and all that you do to serve the people of our state.

Representatives for CHI St. Vincent, Baptist Health and Washington Regional said those hospitals will review testing data results and the directive before deciding to lift the requirement.

It will be interesting to see how many hospitals decide to lift testing. The ADH decision was meant to address the lack of testing materials and the need for increased testing in the community.

Dr. Joe Thompson said his Arkansas Center for Health Improvement will begin adding active cases by community to its website data. He said 500 communities, virtually every one in the state, has at least one active case. He hopes to eventually post a rate of cases in each city. The biggest cities have the most. Little Rock, the state’s largest city, is tops with 495, but isn’t the highest in terms of rate of infection.

Hutchinson acknowledged a problem with claims for unemployment benefits in the regular unemployment program. The state has acknowledged a problem, but has not addressed how a substantial amount of personal data has become available to make claims for benefits under the names and Social Security numbers of people actively employed. I received reports just today from employees at workplaces in Fort Smith, Conway and Little Rock of multiple false claims. The governor also said he had talked with Mike Presto about an unrelated matter — unlocking the accounts of legitimate claimants for the special pandemic unemployment for self-employed. Some 20,000 are locked out, many of them claiming they’ve filed all required information. This delay has been put down to fraud concerns, too, related to the flawed security on the website when it first went online.

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He was asked about Donald Trump’s remark today about the possibility of delaying the November election. He said, “We need to have the election as scheduled. We’ll be ready for it in Arkansas. I see no reason for delay. It’s obviously important from a constitutional standpoint.”