Nearly 800 more Arkansans have tested positive for the coronavirus as the state’s total number of cases approaches 30,000.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday an increase of 794 new cases brought the state’s total to 29,733, while eight more Arkansans died from COVID-19 for a death toll of 331.
Speaking in his daily briefing, Hutchinson said the state Health Department plans to double its testing capacity in an effort to mitigate delays in receiving results from commercial labs.
"We want to have the control of our own destiny, and to have more control over our destiny in our testing we have to build that capacity within our Department of Health lab," Hutchinson said.
The majority of COVID-19 tests in Arkansas are sent to commercial labs for analysis, with about a quarter of all tests on average sent to either the Arkansas Department of Health Public Health Lab or the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Hutchinson said he believes the state’s average testing turnaround time will improve as it moves away from reliance on commercial laboratories.
"We're going to have more progress [in] our commercial labs. I know the White House is pushing them to do more, I've encouraged them to do specific ways to help our commercial labs, so I think that that will improve over time," Hutchinson said. "But we don't know what the future holds and you just don't want to have our capacity solely tied to the commercial labs."
Hutchinson said last week that in July, it took an average of 2.5 days for the state Health Department to receive a test result, up from an average of 1.6 days in April.
Tuesday’s increase brought the state’s total number of active COVID-19 cases to 6,558, including 971 inmates of correctional facilities. The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 increased by six to 445, with 91 patients on a ventilator.
Hutchinson said the Arkansas Department of Health has roughly 1,000 pending complaints against restaurants and other venues accused of not following public health guidelines.
"Part of our effort is social distancing and face coverings, we’re strengthening the enforcement side of our monitoring, we're trying to streamline that to make sure that the businesses that are inspected that have not been in compliance, to make sure that they get the message and that they correct the behavior," Hutchinson said.
Pulaski County added 111 new cases Tuesday, with 68 from Washington County and 52 from Sebastian County. Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said the state’s overall percentage of positive COVID-19 tests appears to be declining after being over 10% for nearly a week.
"When the positivity rate increases… especially over 10%, we get concerned that we may be missing cases, and that's why we watch that percent positivity rate. And so that is why we're pushing to do more testing, to build our capacity at the public health lab so that even if there’s struggles in the commercial labs, we’ll still be able to continue the volume of testing," Smith said.
According to the Health Department, the state has contracted with the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care to add 350 more contact tracers to the state’s workforce, though funding is still subject to legislative approval. Hutchinson announced last week a contract with aerospace defense company General Dynamics for 350 contact tracers had been approved.