Gov. Asa Hutchinson says a lack of coronavirus testing at a federal prison is to blame for a sharp uptick in new cases in eastern Arkansas.
Speaking at his daily briefing Tuesday, Hutchinson announced 121 more people have tested positive for the virus in the state, bringing the total to 4,164. Another person has died, he said, with the death toll now at 95.
While outbreaks of the virus in prisons have caused sharp increases in new cases in the past, only 21 of the new cases added Tuesday were from correctional institutions, including the Cummins Unit state prison where 900 inmates and 60 staff have tested positive.
Though no new cases were reported from the Federal Correctional Institution, Forrest City, Hutchinson said the outbreak appears to be spreading to the community in St. Francis County, where cases increased by 27.
“In Cummins, we went down there and we tested all the staff that might have been exposed in those particular barracks. Not all of the same procedures were followed at FCI in Forrest City, and therefore you have a lot of contact with the staff, with the community… and that's what we see as the reason for that spike in St Francis County,” Hutchinson said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons are responsible for testing at the Forrest City prison, where roughly 350 inmates and staff have contracted COVID-19. Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said he expects more residents of St. Francis County to test positive for the virus.
“This is a community I’m concerned about. We have not just… the inmates, but we also have workers there, many of whom have not yet been tested,” Smith said.
When asked whether Tuesday’s increase in cases could be considered a resurgence of coronavirus infections, Hutchinson said occasional upticks in new cases are to be expected, and are unrelated to businesses reopening in the state.
“We are working hard to make sure those little spikes that we see do not become… outbreaks or a resurgence, and that is what we're focused on, and what I hope everyone is focused on,” Hutchinson said.
As indoor venues in Arkansas prepare to reopen on May 18, Hutchinson said he would announce that same day whether bars in the state can resume operations. The governor said he plans to announce on May 20 whether to allow summer camps and team sports to resume.
With 849 active coronavirus cases and 59 people hospitalized due to COVID-19 as of Tuesday, Health Secretary Smith said Arkansas will receive a donation of the drug remdesivir, used as an experimental treatment for seriously ill coronavirus patients.
“It's not a miracle drug, but we're glad to have some donated supply in Arkansas. This is really only for those who are more severely ill, either on a ventilator or with low oxygen levels,” Smith said.
Smith said the donation from the CDC and drug maker Gilead Sciences will be enough to treat 50 COVID-19 patients, while he said 52 Arkansans meet the criteria for treatment with remdesivir.