Arkansas health secretary leaving for CDC; governor announces effort to address violence
In a wide-ranging press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. José Romero is resigning from the state Department of Health to take a position with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is based in Atlanta. Romero said his last day with the state will be May 6.
Hutchinson thanked Romero for his work “during the most difficult days of this pandemic.” He will become the CDC’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
“We’re grateful for his service. There hasn’t been a better partner that I’ve had during the pandemic. He’s supported me and he’s supported the state. He has understood the political dynamics, as well as the epidemiology of dealing with this pandemic,” Hutchinson said. “While it’s a loss for Arkansas, he’s developed a very strong team at the Department of Health that will be able to continue with great vigor.”
Romero, who at times was choked with emotion, thanked the governor for trusting him and giving him the opportunity to provide advice on decisions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Any success that I’ve had in this position is really the work of the governor, the staff at ADH, and any missteps or failures are clearly on my shoulders,” Romero said.
Two years ago, Romero’s predecessor, Dr. Nate Smith, also left the state to accept a position with the CDC.
In an interview with KUAR News, Romero said he was most proud of the work he did during the pandemic restoring the Department of Infectious Diseases at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and work done to help Arkansas Children’s Hospital manage a surge in pediatric COVID-19 cases.
“We increased the number of outpatients that we could see. In that area, I think I have had a very successful career academically and in public health for the past two years. I think we addressed the pandemic to the best of our ability and we have saved lives. We made [hospital] vaccines available and we made testing available,” Romero said.
When asked if there was any room for improvement with the state’s response, Romero said he wished more COVID-19 tests had been made available.
During the press conference Hutchinson, First Lady Susan Hutchinson and Romero each received booster shots which recently became available for people 50 and older. They encouraged others who are eligible to likewise get the shots saying the benefits of natural immunity and previous vaccinations will eventually wane.
INCREASING OVERSIGHT OF PRISON PAROLEES
Hutchinson also discussed a plan to address violent crime in Arkansas by expanding the Intensive Supervision Program of parolees, which is a part of the Division of Community Corrections. He said the program focuses on high-risk offenders released from prison and who have a history of violence or gang affiliation.
He said there are currently four officers for the program in Pulaski County. Hutchinson said he wants to add 10 officers who will cover five counties — Lonoke, Jefferson, Faulkner, Saline and Pulaski.
“Please understand that we have an additional 70 parole officers just here in Pulaski County [who are] doing routine parole services,” Hutchinson said. “This program provides supervision of those who pose a higher risk that have a history of violence. We believe this makes a difference and we want to increase that supervision.”
Solomon Graves, secretary of the Department of Corrections, said the ratio of parolees to officers in the state is 80:1. He said the ISP program currently has a ratio of 40:1. The department will try to keep that ratio if the program expands, Graves said.
Hutchinson said expanding the program will initially cost slightly more than $1 million during the first year and $820,000 each subsequent year. He said the Arkansas General Assembly will need to approve the use of state funds to expand the program.
The governor said he wasn’t sure if he could get the legislative council to approve the proposal by next week. The money would come from a restricted reserve fund or the governor’s rainy day fund, Hutchinson said.
After the state’s revenue report for March was released on Monday showing a large budget surplus, Hutchinson said in a statement on Twitter that the state should consider providing tax relief to residents who are struggling with inflation and rising fuel costs. For any tax cuts to take place, the governor would also need approval from state lawmakers. Hutchinson said there aren’t any plans to hold a special session at this point, but the option should be kept open.
One option Hutchinson said he opposes would be lowering the state gas tax.
“I don’t think the solution is to suspend the gas tax because that is a temporary fix. It also jeopardizes our investment in something that is very important for our citizens, which is roads that don’t tear up your car everyday,” he said.
HUTCHINSON: "OPTION IS OPEN" TO RUN FOR U.S. PRESIDENT
Hutchinson was also asked during the press conference about speculation he is considering a run for president of the United States. He said nothing is being ruled out.
“I am concerned about our national direction, what’s happening globally with our country and with my party. So as I have the opportunity to provide an influence to the direction of our country, I want to do that because I care, but my focus right now is right here in Arkansas.
The reporter followed up by asking, “So you are considering one?” Hutchinson responded, “I'm not considering it. I would say that option is open down the road because it’s a long ways down the road.”