Governor Hutchinson defended Health Director Jose Romero today following rough treatment in a legislative committee earlier today.
A reporter at the daily coronavirus briefing noted that Sen. Jason Rapert had brought in doctors from other states (whose work has been criticized as political in some quarters). They supported more use of hydroxychloroquine; one said a mask mandate was superstitious and unconstitutional; Dr. Romero’s character was challenged, and one lawmaker criticized the governor and said it was time to reopen Arkansas.
Hutchinson was diplomatic. He said he worried about conflicting statements. “Confusing public messages can reflect challenges to what people know and how they respond.”
He said there was a broad medical consensus in support of wearing masks and he said it also was a conservative principle — “individual responsibility toward others.”
He repeated that the White House task force had said, given Arkansas’s high virus rate, the state should be closing bars and placing more restrictions on restaurants. But he said Arkansas had resisted that.
He said he wished there was a “unified message from Washington all through the states.” But he said diversity of opinion is allowed in America and Dr. Romero had testified this morning.
“I do have confidence in Dr. Romero and his approach,” Hutchinson said. “I follow his guidance … not somebody from Texas.”
Several legislators have threatened a lawsuit to end the state of emergency declared by the governor. He said that the potential lawsuit contends the General Assembly must approve health guidelines. He disagreed. He said the legislature had authorized him to take executive action in the health emergency and this allows a quicker response than going through the legislative process.
He said he trusted his team of legislative experts more than a legislative review.
“Anybody can file a lawsuit,” he said.
On a day with a drop in new cases, there was negative news from public schools. Two school districts have had to stop in-person classes at the high school level — the Cross County School District and Marshall High School. Both have gone to virtual instruction because of positive cases or quarantine for staff exposed to others, Education Secretary Johnny Key said.
The daily COVID-19 count
Arkansas added 368 new cases of coronavirus, a sharp drop from recent days, in the last 24 hours, for a total of 61,224. Hospitalizations rose 29 to 420. Deaths rose 13 to 797. Active cases: 5,466.
These counties had the biggest increases in the last 24 hours: Pulaski, 50; Pope, 41; Benton, 30, and Garland, 21.
Total tests in 24 hours: 4,542.
He contended Arkansas’s positivity rate was moving in the right direction, slightly above 8 percent. The numbers in the last month don’t reflect that, however.
The governor reported for the first time the positivity rate on antigen tests. They run high, judging by the chart he displayed. Perhaps, he said, this is because people who are symptomatic want the quicker answer the antigen tests can provide. They are viewed as reliable when results are positive, though a negative result isn’t necessarily conclusive.
He acknowledged a report of death of a school bus driver in the Russellville area, apparently from virus contracted before school started from someone in the community, but the driver died after school began. But the governor said the state was still looking into the facts of that.
There was a correction announced in testing data, with the inclusion of some 11,300 negative test results that had not been provided by a private lab. Some 8,000 of those came from Benton and Washington counties, which will bring down the cumulative positive rate in those counties.
Hutchinson announced the state had received a $21 million federal grant over two years to cope with opioid abuse. The money will be spent on education, treatment and recovery.