A second peak?

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state could be experiencing a “second peak” in the number of COVID-19 infections during a week when officials recorded a 25 percent surge in newly reported infections.

The new peak follows a dip in infections that began shortly after April 25.

“It’s clear and evident to me,” Hutchinson said Saturday during his daily briefing about the state’s response to the pandemic. “We’ve had a deep dip and then we’re having a second peak right now and they’re really about 30 days apart.”

As of May 19, Arkansas had confirmed 4,932 cases of COVID-19, but as the Memorial Day weekend approached the state saw a 500 case spike in a single day and by the afternoon of May 26, the total had jumped to 6,180 confirmed tests. The first case of COVID-19 in Arkansas was reported on March 11.

Response is key

Hutchinson said Tuesday that in looking at the increase in confirmed cases, how the people of the state respond will impact if the new numbers are a peak that falls, one that levels off or one that continues to rise.

The governor said that over the Memorial Day weekend, the majority of people in the state continued to practice proper social distancing while celebrating, but some instances showed, “a lack of discipline when people are congregating.”

“There were more than a few who put their own comfort and convenience before others, and that is not helpful,” he said. “We are at a critical point in our journey in this pandemic.”

If the peak is to fall, he said, “(It) depends on the commitment and discipline of the people of Arkansas to avoid circumstances where (it will spread).”

While some areas of the state have seen a significant number of infections, Ashley County has only had 19 cases confirmed, and as of Tuesday only one of those was considered an active case. Neighboring Union County has recorded 106 cases of the sometimes-fatal sickness that follows infection from a novel coronavirus, and has seen six deaths. A total of 119 people in the state have died from the illness.

Hutchinson said one of the things to consider about the increase in recorded cases is that testing is increasing. He also said that while the state has increased testing, the positive rate for the state is approximately 5 percent, nearly half of the national standard.

Increased testing, however, is also helping the state to contain further outbreaks, he said, because it can help health officials do contact tracing, the procedure in which people with whom an infected person came in contact are notified of their exposure to the virus and placed in self-quarantine for monitoring and to limit possible further exposures.

“We are learning a lot through our testing, and we are identifying additional areas we need to watch,” Hutchinson said Tuesday.

The Arkansas Department of Health released an alert May 22 telling the public that even after a negative test members of the public who have been exposed to COVID-19 must self-quarantine for 14 days after their last exposure.

“It is important to understand that a negative COVID-19 test for a person who is a contact does not change the requirement for them to complete the 14-day quarantine,” the alert said. “The 14-day period allows for adequate time to monitor for the development of symptoms during the full incubation period of the virus. A negative test in an exposed person during this period may be a false negative, as the virus may have been present but not yet at detectable levels. Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic persons have been shown to contribute to the transmission of COVID-19, so ending the 14-day quarantine early puts others at risk. 

“Therefore, a negative COVID-19 test during a person’s 14-day quarantine does not provide an early or total release from quarantine. All persons must complete a full 14-day self-quarantine when they have been exposed to a known case.” 

Arkansas Secretary of Health Nate Smith echoed the alert Tuesday, saying that defeating the virus will require public buy-in.

“The individual decisions — behaviors (like) wearing masks in public, maintaining that physical distancing of six feet, not gathering in large groups — are what we are going to need to see more and more to protect our communities,” he said.

“I had a man say to me, ‘Why are we worried about a disease that 99 percent of people recover from?’

“Well, 99 percent may recover, but 1 percent don’t. One percent of the population applied to the population of Arkansas is 30,000. That’s not acceptable.”

Based on Tuesday’s numbers, the death rate of confirmed cases in Arkansas is approximately 2 percent.

While officials encouraged continued public vigilance, the governor also said the state was handling the rate of hospitalizations well.

“We are in good shape in Arkansas now (with available hospital beds), and we’ll be in good shape in the future,” he said.

Currently 99 COVID patents are hospitalized around the state, and 617 have ever been hospitalized. Of those in the hospital Tuesday, 17 required the use of a ventilator; 114 patients have required a ventilator since the first reported COVID infection in the state. 

Of the total number of cases, 1,729 are considered active cases.

In addition to previous guidance about hand washing and social distancing, the ADH also released an alert this week urging everyone to wear face masks in public

“When we begin getting back to more normal social interactions, we risk spreading the virus all over again,” the alert said. “Some people may still have the virus without showing symptoms. So, phasing in normal life will require more diligence in personal preventative measures, not less. When current restrictions on where we go and how we gather are loosened, we must double down on preventative practices. No one wants businesses to reopen only to have infections surge and cause a second round of closures.

“It may seem like an unnecessary burden, but many people with COVID-19 have no symptoms and can spread the virus without knowing it. If everyone who can wear a face covering commits to wearing it, our return to normal life will move faster and be more successful.”

Community openings

Just as other businesses have been allowed to reopen, starting Tuesday bars and clubs were allowed to reopen, though at only 33 percent capacity and with significant social distancing and personal protective gear guidelines.

Public pools — including at hotels — were allowed to open May 22, provided they can screen employees who enter, keep the crowd at only 50 percent capacity and maintain social distancing of at least six feet between non-family members.

Crossett Mayor Crystal Marshall said the city is tentatively planning to open the Crossett City Pool June 4.

“There is a lot of work being done currently to implement those guidelines, so it is a tentative date,” she said.

“We are closely monitoring the situation. We are moving forward as if we will open barring us being able to implement all the rules and get the pool to open, but that is subject to change because COVID-19 is a fluid situation.”

The state also announced that team sports will be allowed to resume June 1 as long as participants can maintain six feet of social distancing, “except when actively participating in the sports activity.” Athletes, coaches and staff will have to be screened for COVID symptoms before being allowed to participate, and face coverings that cover the nose and mouth will be required for everyone older than 10, including observers.

Camps will also be allowed to open, though those who attend are encouraged to self-quarantine at home for 14 days before arrival, and the state is strongly encouraging them to have a COVID-19 test performed in the four days before they enter the camp. Campers and staff will be required to wear face coverings, though they will not be required when exercising, eating, bathing or sleeping. Camps that require the quarantine and negative test before entering will be exempt from the face-covering requirement.

All of the new opening rules require significant sanitation procedures.

As of Tuesday, approximately 100,000 Americans had died of COVID-19.

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