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Arkansas Health Care Worker Dies From Coronavirus; Outbreak Expands At Prison

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (left) listens Sunday as Department of Corrections Director Dexter Payne discusses the outbreak at the Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas.
Governor's Office

The number of coronavirus deaths in Arkansas increased to 40 on Sunday, including – for the first time – a health care worker.

Dr. Nate Smith, secretary of the Department of Health, said it was someone who worked at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff and was associated with the first outbreak in the state. Another death announced Sunday involved a nursing home resident, Smith said. He did not offer any additional details, other than to say both were under the age of 65.

Meanwhile more state prisoners at the Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas have tested positive for COVID-19. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the additional 118 cases Sunday, for a total of 348 inmates. They were being isolated in eight barracks at the prison and most were not showing signs of having the virus, he said. Seven other barracks were being used to house those testing negative.

974 inmates at Cummins have been tested, Hutchinson said, with results completed for 634 tests. The additional test results are expected in the coming days.

In anticipation of more cases, the governor is asking the state Parole Board to review nearly 2,000 inmates statewide who were convicted of non-violent, non-sexual offenses and were to be released over the next six months.

"If we have positive cases or an outbreak at another unit, we want to have sufficient space available so that we can have the inmates that test positive isolated," Hutchinson said. "We can do the sufficient contact tracing in these units and have separation capacity, and we have to have some empty spaces for that. So it’s a matter of looking ahead and planning in the event that we have a challenge in any of the other facilities."

Overall, 1781 people in Arkansas have tested positive, officials announced at Sunday’s press briefing. Of those, 721 people have recovered. 24,851 tests have been conducted in the state, with 23,070 coming back negative.

This week a task force created by the governor to make recommendations on how to begin reopening businesses is to hold its first meeting. Hutchinson has set a target date of May 4 to begin loosening restrictions, though he said that would have to be done in a way that is consistent with recommendations from state health officials.

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