The death toll from COVID-19 in Arkansas has risen to 73, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Saturday. Of the nine new deaths since Friday, two were state prison inmates from the Cummins Unit, which has been hard hit during the outbreak.
Dr. Nate Smith, secretary of the state Department of Health, said both men had been hospitalized, were in their 60s and had underlying health conditions. One of the prisoners had been on a ventilator.
The number of people testing positive for the virus in Arkansas reached 3,372 Saturday, Hutchinson said, which was a daily increase of 51. Four of the new cases involved inmates from the federal prison in Forrest City. 100 people were hospitalized, which is five more than Friday, with 20 on ventilators.
Saturday’s press briefing followed daily announcements by the governor this week on when businesses in the state can begin reopening with specific restrictions. Gyms can reopen on Monday, barbershops and beauty salons on Wednesday, and restaurants can resume dine-in service on Monday, May 11.
Hutchinson is expected to announce Monday whether churches and large venues like arenas can reopen.
With Arkansas and other states allowing businesses to reopen, some health officials have said a resurgence in the number of cases of the virus is likely. Hutchinson told reporters that steps are being taken for the possibility of an extended outbreak or a return later in the year.
"Regardless of whether that’s right or wrong, we are preparing for the long term," he said. "By our contact tracing capacity, by a beefing up of our Department of Health infrastructure to meet these challenges if they come back in the fall, to be able to have the level of testing that we need here in the State of Arkansas."
Hutchinson reminded the public of the importance to continue social distancing and the wearing of masks.
Shopping malls like Park Plaza in Little Rock and McCain Mall in North Little Rock reopened this weekend. The governor noted that the state did not order the malls to close, that it was a falloff of customer demand. Whether shoppers return to the stores, Hutchinson said, will be "a matter of consumer confidence."
UPDATE: The Department of Corrections said in a media advisory Saturday afternoon that the inmates died at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff. Spokesman Solomon Graves said prison officials are continuing to work with the Department of Health to coordinate the response to the outbreak at the Cummins Unit. 858 inmates and 65 employees are under COVID-related quarantine, according to the advisory.