Governor Hutchinson’s weekly coronavirus briefing today came on news of Arkansas’s continued place among the hottest COVID-19 spots in the country, a No. 2 ranking in coronavirus in schools and White House questioning of our hospitalization numbers.

The governor opened by saying he was encouraged by a drop in new cases today and a low positivity rate on tests in the last 24 hours.

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But he warned of a “very difficult time” in the fall and winter. He said his goals were to increase flu shot participation; to perform 1 million COVID-has 19 tests by Oct. 20, meaning 103,000 more than already performed; increase consistency of contact tracing (making them more effective and meaningful); emphasize continued wearing of masks and social distancing (“it is still effective; it is necessary), and try not to grow weary. He said the hope was on the horizon in the form of a vaccine.

The daily coronavirus count

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617 new cases. Arkansas recorded 486 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed by PCR tests today, for a total of 74,772. There were 131 new probable cases, for a total case count of 2,209. Hospitalizations rose 12 to 459. Deaths rose 12 to 1,060. Active cases:

The number of tests in the last 24 hours: 6,810 PCR tests. Antigen tests: 651, with 112 positive.

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These counties top the daily list of new cases: Pulaski, 80; Benton, 55; Craighead, 30; Sebastian, 28, and Washington, 26.

Other topics and Q&A

CONTACT TRACING: Stephanie Williams of the Health Department showed a current timeline, which she said represents improvement and more is hoped for.

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FLU SHOTS: Dr. Jennifer Dillaha of the Health Department said their great benefit at this time was keeping people out of the hospital.

SCHOOLS: Education Secretary Johnny Key said 106 schools had modified operations because of COVID-19, but 83 had gone back to normal operation.

PRISON: Corrections Department Director Solomon Graves said there are 309 active cases in prisons currently, down from more than 1,000 in July. Three inmates are hospitalized. 39 inmates have died in the pandemic.

UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said the state had begun the second week of payments of three weeks of the added $300/wk. federal payments from federal emergency money ordered by Donald Trump (paid for six weeks in some states, but it’s unclear as yet if Arkansas will do more than three). He said $47million had been paid out so far. He said unemployment claims are trending down, to 32,000 on traditional unemployment and 47,000 on the assistance for self-employed.

Hutchinson was asked about the difference in state and federal hospitalization numbers. He said the detail needed to be discussed in more detail after the session. The federal report suggests Arkansas is underreporting its numbers.

He also was asked about the New York Times report on Arkansas’s No. 2 rank in COVID-19 cases in the schools. He said he hadn’t seen the article. But he said the state school year was off to a good start. “We’ve had a great start. We’re happy.” He said the state wasn’t “particularly concerned” about the number of cases.

Hutchinson was asked about the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy. He said it was the constitutional duty of the president to make a nomination and for the Senate to consider it. He said it should move “expeditiously,” but there should be adequate time for review and appropriate hearings. He said that could be done before the election, which would be extremely fast, given that Trump hasn’t announced his nominee yet and won’t until Saturday, less than 40 days before the election. Asked about where he stood in 2016, he said he didn’t know if he’d made any statements then (when Republicans were blocking a Barack Obama nominee) but he had always favored following constitutional responsibilities.

A question came about strengthening compliance, as recommended by a White House task force on the state’s high rate of growth in new cases. He agreed the growth rate was too high. “We want fewer cases. We want to slow that growth.” He emphasized the report’s mention of an improvement in the positivity rate and an increase in testing. He said the Health Department was working on strengthening compliance. He said more than 2,000 inspections had been conducted for compliance with health rules, more than 90 percent passing. But he said there’d been 173 citations for non-compliance.

He said he had no plans to “cancel Halloween.” But he said the state was looking at it. If people follow guidelines, it should be safe. “Wearing a mask shouldn’t be hard during Halloween,” he said. But he added, “We don’t want Halloween gatherings of 200 or 300 people in a gymnasium without a plan approved by the Department of Health.”