More than 50,000 Arkansans have tested positive for the coronavirus as the state records 34 new COVID-19 deaths over the past three days.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Monday an increase of 645 new coronavirus cases, which brought the state’s total to 50,028, while an additional 11 deaths brought the death toll to 555.
Speaking in his daily briefing on the pandemic, Hutchinson said the state is adding fewer new coronavirus cases each day despite a sharp increase of over 1,000 positive test results last Friday.
"This is not the place to flatten it out. You don't want to flatten out at 700 cases a day or 800 cases a day, you've got to continue that decline. And so even though we've had some recent success over the last week, this is still too high," Hutchinson said.
As of Monday, Arkansas had 7,343 active COVID-19 cases, including 52 nursing home residents and 886 inmates of correctional facilities. Six fewer Arkansans were hospitalized with the disease for a total of 508, with 117 patients on a ventilator.
Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero said a continued reduction in new case growth is needed in order to determine whether a statewide face mask requirement has been effective in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
"It’s good to see that the trend may be going downward with the number of positive tests. It’s still early, we would like to see that continue downward. But if we do see that further trend in the 500 to 600 positives a day during this week, I think that is good evidence that the mask mandate is going into effect, that we’re starting to depress the curve," Romero said.
The governor also responded to President Donald Trump’s executive order that would provide a weekly payment of $400 on top of traditional unemployment benefits, but which requires states to pay 25% of the overall cost.
Hutchinson said Arkansas would be able to cover that cost for the 120,000 residents still receiving unemployment, thought it would come at the expense of other programs funded by the $2 trillion CARES Act.
"The cost is estimated to be $265 million, and for example we have put $250 million into reserve of our CARES Act funding that we would not tap into until October. We would have to dip into that in order to be able to meet the 25% requirement over time," Hutchinson said.
The governor’s comments come after President Trump signed a series of executive orders over the weekend aimed at providing economic relief in lieu of a congressional aid package. Trump’s executive order would replace the $600 weekly payments known as Pandemic Unemployment Compensation which expired last month.
Hutchinson said he would wait for further federal guidance before seeking legislative approval for the payments included in the order. The governor cited a $20 million appropriation to provide take-home WiFi access points to K-12 students as one program that would suffer if Arkansas were forced to partially cover the cost of expanded unemployment payments.
"Right now it's allocated to helping our students to be better prepared for online distance learning if necessary by putting funds into high speed broadband, and so we'd have to reallocate some of that money," Hutchinson said. "And part of that consideration is will Congress… if we put this money out there now to fill the gap, will they be replenishing the funds coming to the state down the road?"
Pulaski County saw the highest increase in new cases Monday with 61 residents testing positive, with 52 new cases from Sebastian County and 50 from Garland County. Arkansas saw a total of 1,344 new coronavirus cases and 23 deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday and Sunday.