For the third time in just over one week, Arkansas has seen its largest single-day increase in new coronavirus cases among non-incarcerated people.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced 703 people tested positive Friday including 41 inmates of correctional facilities, bringing the state’s total to 14,631. An additional six deaths from COVID-19 increased the state’s death toll to 214.
Speaking in his daily briefing, Hutchinson said he still does not support any statewide measure requiring Arkansans to wear face masks in public.
“If you're going to make a law or a directive, and that's what a directive is, it’s not good policy not to have the ability to enforce, or the fact that it's going to really make the directive illegitimate to begin with,” Hutchinson said. “So that's the reason that when it comes to individuals, it is guidance that we expect and want people to follow.”
New infections continue to be centered around northwest Arkansas with Washington and Benton counties seeing a combined increase of 248 new cases, while an additional 53 residents of Pulaski County tested positive. Arkansas has 4,705 active cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, with a total of 231 people hospitalized.
Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said the Health Department is working to determine whether there’s a relationship between this Friday’s uptick and a record increase of 731 new cases seen the week before.
“I don't have enough information on those to tell you exactly where each of those individuals acquired their infection, how was transmitted, but when you see a weekly pattern like that and you go back the five or six days of the average incubation period, at least there's a suggestion that what's happening on the weekends is having some bearing there,” Smith said.
Hutchinson said the state Health Department is releasing new guidelines on wearing face masks, though the state is stopping short of requiring people to cover their faces in public.
“This is the same type of guidance that we give to our houses of worship…but it’s not a directive which carries a civil penalty with that, and that is an enforcement issue,” Hutchinson said. “But we provide that guidance and, by and large, churches have adhered to that. We're asking the public in the same way to follow the recommendations of the Arkansas Department of Health.”
Hutchinson also announced that just over 5,000 direct-care workers of the state’s ambulance companies will receive bonus payments similar to other payments approved for non-physician employees of hospitals and nursing homes.
The payments, funded by $12 million allocated by the state’s CARES Act Steering Committee, will apply to employees who worked between April 5 and May 30. Part-time employees will receive weekly payments of $125 while those working at least 40 hours per week will receive $250.
While the Health Department works to trace the various sources of Friday’s spike in cases, Smith urged Arkansans to follow public health guidelines on social distancing and hygiene.
“We have focused a lot of attention on work sites, which is good and appropriate. We need to continue to do that but when it comes to the weekend, people can't let their guard down in terms of attending large events, not physical distancing, especially not wearing masks because then we can see transmission in those settings,” Smith said.
Smith said a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent to northwest Arkansas to help combat the spread of the virus will likely remain there for as many as two more weeks.