Gov. Asa Hutchinson says three more people in Arkansas are presumed to have tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total number of presumptive cases in the state to nine.
In a news conference at the Arkansas Department of Health Friday, Hutchinson said one case indicates the first instance of community spread of the virus in the state, in Little Rock.
"Two of those in reference to a couple that had been traveling, and then the other one is of unknown origin; there’s no travel history, and that is of concern," Hutchinson said. The announcement comes days after Arkansas identified its first presumptive case of the virus in Pine Bluff.
Thirty minutes prior, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. held a news conference in Little Rock City Hall about the first case of community transmitted coronavirus in the city. This case differs from previously confirmed cases in that the patient had no known contact with another patient with the virus.
Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said this means there are individuals infected with the coronavirus that the state does not know about.
"There's nothing surprising about this. We knew that this was going to happen. And this is exactly the way that influenza is transmitted through a community," Patterson said. "Practice of social distancing and good hygiene habits will remain critically important during this time." However, Patterson also said the vast majority of coronavirus cases would be best treated at home.
"Simply because there is a concern about COVID-19 infection, does not mean that you need to call an ambulance, you need to go to an emergency room, you need to get to a doctor's office. Those are the worst places for you to be if you are a…person who has COVID-19 infection, but no serious illness," Patterson said.
Hutchinson said all cases are still contained to a four-county area in central Arkansas, in Pulaski, Saline, Jefferson and Grant counties, and is urging county officials to ban all gatherings of more than 200 people. The governor is also amending his emergency order allowing for enhanced telemedicine in the state, and that the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is ordering new equipment to test for the virus.
Along with ten new lab positions he’s authorized to be filled immediately, Hutchinson said the Department of Health’s inventory of personal protective equipment also will increase within the next seven days.
"We should have an additional 28,000 N95 respirators, 66,000 additional surgical masks, as well as other equipment that will be coming in," Hutchinson said.
Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health Dr. Nate Smith said the state has done 70 tests for coronavirus overall as of Friday morning, with three additional negative test results received from the private laboratory company LabCorp. Hutchinson said, following recommendations by the Trump Administration, insurance companies will allow for free testing of the coronavirus. But, he said uninsured people should not be concerned about the cost of testing.
"You can see the volume of cases we've had and it’s not an issue. So the simple message is, to the public, don’t worry about the cost of a test," Hutchinson said. "Sure, we'll ask for insurance, we'll ask whether you have Medicaid coverage, but beyond that, they can have that test done and that’s not going to be an issue."
Though Hutchinson had urged schools in the four counties affected by coronavirus to close for two weeks, Education Secretary Johnny Key stressed the importance of keeping schools open.
"What we know is that schools are the safest places in the state for most of our students and the services that they receive there, not only the educational opportunities but the meal services that go on, are very important. And we want to keep that access open as long as we possibly can," Key said.
Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. said Little Rock is prepared for the coronavirus, but for its residents to continue practicing social distancing. Furthermore Scott urged for the postponement or cancellation of any events with an anticipated 200 people or more.
"We do understand that we never want to get in the way of private organizations, but we want to ensure the public health and safety of our citizens. So we strongly urge that if you have an event, that [has] 200 people to follow suit of the city of Little Rock and postponing those events," Scott said.
Those seeking more information about the coronavirus can go to UAMS Health Now for a free online screening for COVID-19. UAMS is also offering two phone lines, one for children at 1-800-743-3616 and one for adults at 1-800-632-4502. Patterson said he hoped that within the next week UAMS will have the technology needed to increase the number of tests being done within the state.