Arkansas Adds Over 300 Coronavirus Cases, Most At State Prison

Apr 21, 2020

A graph displays the daily increase in coronavirus cases in Arkansas.
Credit Governor's Office / YouTube

Arkansas has seen its largest two-day increase in positive coronavirus test results, bringing the total number of cases to 2,227 and the total deaths from COVID-19 to 43.

In his daily press briefing Tuesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state added 304 new coronavirus cases, with 262 of those at the Cummins Unit near Pine Bluff. As of late Monday, 670 inmates and 10 prison staff have tested positive for the virus.

Though testing of inmates at the maximum security prison has finished, Hutchinson said he expects the number of cases in Arkansas correctional facilities to grow.

“There’s going to be more new cases at Cummins, and there’s going to be more new cases at Forrest City Federal Correctional [Institution] in coming days. We understand that. We’re doing that level of testing because it’s critical for the health and safety of the inmates that are there, but also the staff as well as the community,” Hutchinson said.

The increase was announced shortly after a coalition of the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and civil rights lawyers announced they were seeking a temporary restraining order on behalf of inmates against Hutchinson and officials with the state Department of Corrections over “inadequate measures” to prevent COVID-19 transmission in prisons.

The lawsuit seeks for inmates at high risk for complications from COVID-19 to be released or transferred to home confinement, and for increased access to hygiene products and personal protective equipment for inmates.

Hutchinson said he had not read the full court filing, but that he is confident in the state’s response to the outbreak of the virus in prisons, particularly when it comes to testing.

“We’ve gone beyond that with our inmate population at Cummins, because [Health Secretary Dr. Nate] Smith and his team has been there and provided more testing for the inmates at Cummins than is available to the general population,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson did not give an update on the state Parole Board’s efforts to identify roughly 2,000 inmates that could be released from prison early, other than to say it would be a “longer process.”

Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said Arkansas has 1,375 active coronavirus cases, including 249 healthcare workers. Of those active cases, 86 were hospitalized as of Tuesday while 27 were on a ventilator. Smith said the number of nursing homes with confirmed cases of the disease has risen to 29, while 135 residents of long-term care facilities have tested positive for the virus.

Steuart Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton and chair of the governor’s Economic Recovery Task Force, said that group would have an interim report on recommendations for easing business restrictions by the end of May, with a final report completed by the end of June.

Hutchinson also said Tuesday would be the first meeting of a working group tasked with identifying ways to expand the capacity and performance of COVID-19 testing in the state.