Brian Chilson

Public health experts have said that the decision to reopen schools to in-person instruction should be tied to the infection rates in particular communities. Is that a recommendation Governor Hutchinson is following? he was asked in today’s daily briefing.

“I tell you they’ve been terrific up there and supportive, but I hear three different messages from three different doctors in reference to standards from school. These are guidelines they suggest,” he said.

“The CDC guidelines, they look at 10 percent positivity rate as a good thing. Everybody has a different opinion on schools. What they are united about is that these are local decisions that have to be made based on the circumstances in your state and that’s what we’re acting on.”

By three doctors, he’s presumably talking about the three most prominent doctors leading national COVID-19 response: Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Robert Redfield, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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Redfield, in a July 24 call with reporters to discuss new CDC guidance on reopening schools, said that in “hot spots,” where the COVID-19 positivity rate is greater than 5 percent, schools should remain closed to in-person instruction. Birx, on CNN on Aug. 2, endorsed Redfield’s take. Fauci has been less prescriptive, but said on Aug. 3, “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. … You’ve got to be flexible depending on the level of infection where you’re located,” and indicated that in areas with high infection rates, school should begin virtually.

Hutchinson knows that Redfield has pegged 5 percent as a positivity rate threshold for safe reopening. He talked about it in his press briefing July 24, noting that the state had some work to do. As a state, our positivity rate hasn’t been below 5 percent since May. It has hovered above 10 percent since July. (The chart the governor shows during his daily briefing is only accurate up to several days in the past because test results have been slow to come to the health department and daily positivity results get retroactively input).

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Hutchinson knows that public health officials believe it’s unsafe to reopen schools with the positivity rates seen in many Arkansas communities today, but he also knows that Arkansas’s economy doesn’t work very well without in-person school. He repeated an analogy he’s made several times: There is risk in all aspects of work.

“You could make the argument that someone shouldn’t go work in a factory or they shouldn’t work in a meat processing plant because they could get COVID and take it back home or likewise you could get it at home and take it back to the factory,” he said in response to a question about the risk to returning to school. “These are risks anytime you have movement, and you have movement in schools.”

According to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, which tracks outbreaks in food sectors, there have been 4,506 COVID-19 cases among meatpacking workers in Arkansas and 20 deaths.