The Arkansas Department of Health is now allowing anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 to receive a coronavirus test as the state’s death toll from the disease rises to 33.
Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith announced the department would revise its testing criteria at Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s daily coronavirus press briefing Wednesday, where he said 1,569 people have tested positive for the virus in Arkansas.
Smith said tests were previously reserved for symptomatic healthcare workers and high-risk patients, but that testing can now be expanded due to a shorter turnaround time to complete a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for the virus.
“We are still not recommending testing for asymptomatic individuals except these very select situations where we’re doing contact investigations in a congregate care setting,” Smith said. “Of course, that needs to be coupled with that facility’s ability to do that, their supplies and their availability of testing kits.”
He said the latest COVID-19 patient to die in Arkansas was a nursing home resident, bringing the total number of nursing home-related deaths in the state to seven. According to Smith, 98 residents and 88 employees of 28 nursing homes in the state have tested positive so far.
Hutchinson announced Wednesday that the state has received partial approval of a waiver from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to pay bonuses to non-physician direct care workers at nursing homes and other long-term care settings in the state.
“This is extraordinarily good news for those that have been on the front line, that have been putting themselves at risk, that has shown their commitment to healthcare during this national emergency,” Hutchinson said.
Under the waiver, part-time workers at those facilities will receive $125 per week, while full-time and split-shift employees will receive $250 each week. Workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus and are receiving treatment can be paid as much as $500 per week.
Hutchinson said he would be asking a state steering committee tasked with distributing the state’s $1.25 billion share of the $2 trillion federal CARES Act to implement a separate funding mechanism for direct care workers at hospitals, as well as non-direct workers at hospitals and long-term care facilities.
Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Human Services Cindy Gillespie said roughly 75,000 healthcare workers in the state would be eligible for direct payments if that plan is approved.
“This afternoon, we will be releasing information that all of the facilities and home health agencies that want to provide these bonus payments to their workers… can then send to us,” Gillespie said.
Hutchinson said nursing home and long-term care workers will receive payments for the week beginning April 5 through the end of May, though payments can be extended by an additional 30 days if the state still has 1,000 active cases of the coronavirus.
Hutchinson said projections from the University of Washington show the state is now expected to reach the peak rate of coronavirus infections by May 2. The governor said he has also canceled efforts to increase “surge capacity” for hospitals, with sites like Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium having been identified as possible locations to temporarily house patients.