Arkansas revenue has surpassed predictions revised because of the COVID-19 pandemic as the state sees another triple-digit increase in new coronavirus cases.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday the state saw 520 new coronavirus cases, bringing the state’s total to 20,777, while five more Arkansans died from COVID-19 bringing the state’s death toll to 270.
Speaking in his daily briefing, Hutchinson said state revenue at the fiscal year end is $360 million above forecast.
"But now that we see the full financial picture and the condition that we’ll be in going into next [fiscal] year, I am today authorizing a merit pay increase for state employees of 2.2%," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said the state will restore just under $150 million to funds supporting public schools and higher education resulting from a new revised state revenue forecast of roughly $5.6 billion. $72.2 million will also be restored to the state’s Medicaid trust fund, with $255 million in unallocated reserve funds.
Washington County again had the highest increase with 152 new cases Tuesday, with 33 people in neighboring Benton County testing positive. Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said infections in Pulaski County are continuing on an upward trend with 118 new cases, which likely includes some state prison inmates.
"44% of those are in Little Rock and 30% of those are in Wrightsville, and although we don't have complete data on those Wrightsville cases, we think that most or all of those are from the Wrightsville Unit where we've been testing in response to cases there," Smith said.
Tuesday’s increase in cases brought the state’s total number of active COVID-19 cases to 5,976, including at least 548 inmates of correctional facilities and 120 nursing home residents. 290 Arkansans were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday with 67 on a ventilator.
Gov. Hutchinson said nursing homes and other long-term care facilities will be able to open for visitors Wednesday if all residents and staff have been tested for the coronavirus.
“I think a majority of the nursing homes will be subject to that reopening, but there will be a significant number that will not meet the criteria because they've had a positive test, and the new CDC guidelines provide that, to reopen a nursing home, there should be 28 days without a positive case,” Hutchinson said.
Health Secretary Smith said the state Health Department has identified 59 nursing homes with at least one COVID-19 case, based on over 40,000 residents and staff tested. Smith said the department is regulating large gatherings set to occur over the July 4 holiday
"There are large venue plans that are submitted to the Arkansas Department of Health and they're approved, and those plans are designed to make those events as safe as possible, to limit COVID-19 transmission as much as possible. But a plan is only as good as its implementation," Smith said.
Smith said a second team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be sent to Arkansas to focus on identifying transmission of COVID-19 in nursing home settings. This comes as another CDC group continues to work on outreach to Latino and Marshallese communities in northwest Arkansas.
According to Smith, the Health Department has accepted a contract to add 350 new contact tracers, and is awaiting authorization from the state to fund an additional 350 tracers working to track the spread of the virus.