The Arkansas Department of Health is lifting restrictions on elective surgeries shortly after a federal appeals court ruled the state could ban non-emergency surgical abortions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said clinics can resume minor surgeries on April 27, but must require all patients to have completed a test for COVID-19 two days prior to the procedure.
“If our situation with the COVID-19 epidemic continues to improve, we’ll allow more different types of procedures to be done on sicker patients who require longer hospital stays,” Smith said. “But for this directive that will… be effective on Monday, they’ll have to meet all those conditions, including making sure their patients are tested within 48 hours.”
The announcement comes after a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal judge’s order allowing for surgical abortions to continue despite the ban on elective procedures. The American Civil Liberties Union had sued the state on behalf of Arkansas’s only surgical abortion clinic after the state Health Department ordered the clinic to stop providing the procedure.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the clinic, Little Rock Family Planning Services, can resume the procedure by next Monday if it follows the Health Department’s guidelines.
“The Department of Health will be enforcing that directive for all the clinics that it would be applicable to, but the challenge was that the abortion clinic indicated they weren’t going to follow that, and this allows them to be required to comply as well,” Hutchinson said.
The Health Department directive also calls for patients not to have had contact with a COVID-19 patient or to have had symptoms of the disease for 14 days prior to the procedure. Smith said providers should start only with ambulatory surgeries that do not require an overnight hospital stay.
As of Wednesday, Arkansas had 2,276 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 1,371 considered active. 97 people were hospitalized and 23 on a ventilator as of Wednesday, while the state’s death toll decreased to 42 after a Missouri resident was mistakenly included in the state’s tally of COVID-19 deaths.
Smith said the state added 49 coronavirus cases Wednesday including 13 from the Cummins Unit state prison, where a total of 681 inmates and 14 staff have contracted COVID-19. Of the other new cases, he said all but one were related to nursing homes in the state.
Hutchinson said that by next week he will begin to announce whether the state will lift restrictions on certain venues like restaurants and hair salons by May 4.
“We’re firm on the May 4 date as the target date. We have to be on the right path, we have to be looking at the data and feel comfortable with the restrictions that we’re putting in place,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said he will announce a decision on restaurants on April 29, gyms on April 30, barbershops and hair salons on May 1, and places of worship and larger venues on May 4.