State 'on the precipice' of rapid increase in COVID cases

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, right, speaks about the rate of COVID-19 infection in Arkansas at a news conference Tuesday while an American Sign Language speaker interprets for the hearing impaired. (PUBLIC DOMAIN/News Observer)

State officials repeated Tuesday a warning from the White House Coronavirus Task Force that Arkansas, “is on the precipice of a rapid increase of cases that will be followed by new hospital admissions.”

The warning was issued in the days after the state saw an increase in COVID-19-related deaths.

“We look at the holiday season that is approaching and we have to be mindful that if Arkansas continues at the pace of the last two days, Arkansas will have an additional 1,000 Arkansans who will die of COVID between now and Christmas,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.

At the time Hutchinson issued his remarks Tuesday, the state had added 1,554 new cases of the virus in the previous 24 hours, resulting in 16,576 active cases across Arkansas. Of the active cases, 895 were hospitalized and more than 120 were on ventilators.

Ashley County accounted for 88 of the state’s active cases; of Ashley County’s cases, 69 were considered “confirmed” using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, while the remaining 19 were considered “probable” because they were diagnosed using other testing methods.

Considering the holidays and the potential for an additional 1,000 people to die of the virus, “should inspire us to do well to follow the guidelines and break the trend,” Hutchinson said. “And that is our goal.”

Arkansas Secretary of Health Jose Romero said Tuesday that if the state does not get the virus under control quickly, hospitals will be overwhelmed.

“We are facing a significant and possibly uncontrollable rise in cases,” he said. “This is like a boulder rolling down a hill. There will come a time when we cannot stop it.”

Now is the time to act, he said, telling those watching the briefing that he still emphasizes “the three ‘W’s” — washing hands, wearing masks and watching your distance.

Romero said that the trend of recent deaths showed that a majority of the mortalities could be connected to nursing homes and congregate living centers.

“There is clearly a vulnerable population there and a population we are concerned about,” he said, before repeating advice he has given before about leaving older residents at nursing homes for the holidays this year.

“Our elderly are vulnerable,” Romero said. “Bringing them to your home may be a detriment to their health. Consider postponing your Thanksgiving with them until a later date.”

The health secretary expressed sympathy for the situation, saying that he understands that people want to be together.

“But it is a time to protect their health,” he said.

Romero said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported an increase of infections related to small gatherings of 10 or fewer.

“This means the increase is coming from the community and represents widespread community spread,” he said.

Despite voicing concerns about community spread, Hutchinson also said he was reluctant to follow guidance from the White House task force that advised reducing restaurant capacity to one-third.

“If you put the restrictions back down to one-third, you would be shutting down a whole bunch of businesses,” he said. “They are there hanging by a thread. If you cut that further, you are going to be putting them under water.”

The state does have, however, a compliance review team that visits businesses to ensure that they are following proper safety protocols, Hutchinson said. The team’s administrator, Mike Moore, said that after four months of reviews, his team had found a 93 percent compliance rate.

“We need to understand that even a seven percent non-compliance can cause some huge problems when it comes to this COVID-19 that our whole state is battling,” Moore said.

Most of the violations resulted in verbal warnings, he said.

“We are really trying to work with the restaurants, the bars,” he said. “Our goal is for them to stay open. We want to make sure Arkansans are safe when they want to go out.”

Moore encouraged those who go out to wear masks and practice social distancing.

“If you are not afraid of the virus, we understand that, but the folks you may infect, we don’t know how it will affect them,” he said.

Hutchinson likewise said he would not be telling schools to put a pause on sports for the time being. Infections connected with sporting events tend to be traced to activities that surround high school athletics rather than what happens on the field, he said.

“I want the schools to continue to look at their activities and as to how they can better plan, whether they should be scheduling all the games at the same time, but if there is ways you can have windows so that the crowds are not exchanging constantly,” Hutchinson said. “There is not an easy answer there, (but) we don’t plan on cancelling athletics. I think that would be terrible for the health of our young people; but we will be looking at other ways to control that environment.”

Nationally, 11,289,297 people have been infected with COVID-19 since the pandemic reached American shores earlier this year. A total of 248,001 Americans have died of the virus since then.

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