Governor Hutchinson added a briefing this afternoon to his normal once-weekly schedule ostensibly to emphasize the CDC had changed its guidance on quarantine after exposure to someone with the virus.
But I guessed in advance the briefing was influenced in part by the expectation that the result of Thanksgiving would show in today’s new case count. It did: A new one-day record.
The daily COVID-19 count
Total cases to date: 164,310, up 2,789, a one-day record.
Active cases stand at 17,109, an increase of 731.
Hospitalizations dropped by 16 to 1,072.
Deaths rose by 33 to 2,555.
As you can see from the summary, positive test rates are well over 10 percent.
For the first time, the top three counties all reported more than 200 new cases. Thirty-two counties had more than 20 cases in the last 24 hours.
The governor said this is a message that community spread is a risk all over Arkansas and health guidance should be followed.
Instead of the 14-day quarantine, it has been recommending, the CDC says that potential exposure warrants a quarantine of 10 or seven days, depending on test results and symptoms.
Part of the idea is to encourage people to observe some quarantine, where many have not, often because they couldn’t afford not to report for work. In Arkansas, adherence to these and other guidelines has been spotty and our illness and death rates show it.
The governor said the state would substantially adopt the CDC recommendations. Some different rules will apply to long-term care facilities and prisons, he said. Health Director Jose Romero said this would primarily mean testing before removal from quarantine in those settings.
FROM TODAY’S BRIEFING:
The governor has asked FEMA to provide 10 hospital beds from VA hospitals, including five ICU beds and five surgical beds, in expectation of an expanded need. This will cost the state $500,000 toward a $1.3 million cost for 30-day availability.
Why now? An expectation of challenges in the next three weeks. Hutchinson said he thought hospitals were prepared “but this gives added relief.” Hospital rates are “lagging indicators” and the expectation is the rise in cases will eventually be reflected there.
Health Director Romero said it was the time to be “more stringent” in following guidelines. “This is a public responsibility,” he said. “Without your help, this cannot be brought under control.”
Education Secretary Johnny Key said the shorter quarantine time will be beneficial to schools in getting people back to work with fewer days off.
Key was asked about a report from Little Rock that students had been made to huddle together in an active shooter drill. He said drills should be modified to follow guidelines, that is to keep a distance.
The governor was also asked about retired state medical director Dr. Gary Wheeler’s op-ed today in the Democrat-Gazette that suggested further restrictions to hold down the growth of the virus. He said he had not read it. But he said he wants everyone to take responsibility. He said the state had discussed taking more steps to ensure compliance. But what about closing bars and restaurants. “I think I’ve answered that question,” Hutchinson said and moved to another questioner.
He was asked if he was “afraid” given the dire situation painted by UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, who’s arranged, among others, for extra morgue space. No, he said, he was focused on what “we need to do as a state.”
He said, “It’s not a time for fear, but it’s a time for action and a time for resolve.” But he listed no action apart from preparation and encouragement of all to do better.
He was asked why poultry workers should have a higher priority for the vaccine than others. He said the priority remained healthcare workers and nursing home residents. The essential worker category will come next and priorities for that group are still under development. But Dr. Romero said these workers are essential and they’ve been disproportionately hit by the virus so they should be a priority.
He was asked why schools shouldn’t have virtual instruction through Christmas at the middle school and high school system. He said in-classroom instruction was important, but schools have an option for remote instruction if needed. That plan “has served our school districts very well.” He said being in school was the safest environment for students.
The governor, under continued questioning on more specific actions, said the Health Department was looking at new rules for indoor gatherings of more than 20 people. but this was in the context of continuing to insist that no data indicates cases are arising from places like gyms. He continued to say restrictions could put people out of work. This would not apply to restaurants, covered by different rules, or high school athletic activities, he said.
UPDATE: After the press conference, Romero said he failed to mention another caveat to the shortened quarantines: Those who leave early will still “need to avoid nonessential activity” until the end of the full 14-day period: “We don’t want them out in the community, going to the store.” They can still go to church or work, he said.
Romero also said the health department will step up monitoring of gatherings to make sure they are complying with organizers’ submitted safety plans, which are required for indoor events admitting more than 100 people. Terry Paul, who Hutchinson described as the “enforcement leader” at the Health Department, wil head that effort. Romero said no new staff would be needed.