Arkansas saw its first two COVID-19 related deaths Tuesday, and state officials warned that more COVID-related cases were expected.
While they warned residents to take as many precautionary measures as possible, officials stopped short of issuing what other states have called shelter-in-place orders.
Speaking at what has become a daily news conference Tuesday, Arkansas Secretary of Health Nate Smith said at that time the state had 218 confirmed cases of the virus, which in some instances causes significant respiratory distress. By press time Wednesday, the number of reported cases had increased to 236.
Of the cases that had been identified, 14 had required hospitalization and six needed to be placed on ventilators, Smith said.
The two deaths were both located in the central part of the state. One was a man in his 50s and the other was older than 80. Smith said neither of the deaths were nursing home residents.
The cases identified as of Tuesday included 11 children, 73 people who were 65 and older, and 134 who were between the ages of 19 to 64.
People associated with nursing homes — patients and staff members — accounted for 38 of the infected patients, Smith said.
Ten people are considered to have recovered from the infection.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said that in speaking with health officials, he is hearing experts say that the state is still “in the calm before the storm.”
“We are still on the front end of the COVID-19 emergency in Arkansas,” Hutchinson said. “While it has moved quickly in other states, here in Arkansas we do have time to plan, so we are not going to be in the position of some others (where) we don’t have sufficient hospital beds; we have ways to bring others on line if we get to that point.”
The state has time to build a stockpile of equipment and ventilators, he said.
During his weekend briefings, the governor said the state can expect to see the outbreak peak in six to eight weeks. Based on projections from other states, approximately 1,000 Arkansans will require hospitalization, he said.
“There is more unknown than known about the future, but this is our best expectation at the present time,” he said Saturday. “I hope we are wrong, that the peak is not as high. I hope the trend is not as long. If we don’t reach those levels, we rejoice.”
Hutchinson said he has not issued a shelter-in-place order after reviewing what other states have done.
“We need to make sure we make the right decision, as long as the public does what they need to do and our businesses follow the guidelines we offer,” he said.
The state has closed schools until April 17, and has banned sit-in service at restaurants and bars. The state has limited public gatherings to 10 people, and ordered health care facilities to screen all patients for symptoms of the virus.
Residents are also encouraged to practice so-called social distancing, which includes maintaining significant space between themselves and others and avoiding interacting in person whenever possible.
Arkansas Medical Director of Immunizations Jennifer Dillaha urged residents to take social distancing seriously, including avoiding taking unnecessary trips to stores or areas where people interact with businesses.
“This is to protect ourselves as well as our friends and our families,” she said.
“If we are taking care of ourselves, then we will be, in turn, taking care of our families.”
That will be the key to getting life back to normal, Hutchinson said as he referenced the projected coming wave of new infections.
“We need to watch that curve, though…If we don’t do what we need to do now, it will be extended or higher than we need or want it to be,” he said.
The Arkansas Department of Health has offered a list of general precautions to protect from COVID-19 infection.
The tips include:
-Avoiding close contact with sick people.
-Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands.
-Staying home when you are sick.
-Covering all coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands.
-Coughing and sneezing into your elbow instead of on your hand.
-Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces with a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
-Refrain from shaking hands.