COVID-19 Cases Spike At Arkansas Prison; Gov. Aims To Ease Business Restrictions By May

Apr 17, 2020

Gov. Asa Hutchinson stands next to an image of Navy Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., a Fort Smith native and the first active-duty member of the military to die from COVID-19.
Credit Governor's Office / YouTube

The number of inmates at an Arkansas prison testing positive for the coronavirus has nearly tripled, less than a week after the first case at the facility was identified.

This comes as Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he hopes to see an easing of some restrictions on businesses in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic as early as May 4.

Speaking at the governor’s daily briefing Friday, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health Dr. Nate Smith said 83 more inmates of the Cummins Unit near Pine Bluff have tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total number of infections at the prison to 129.

“We had identified a number of cases in that one barracks, and we know that there have been inmates transferred out to other barracks before that first case was identified,” Smith said.

The state Department of Corrections said an inmate at the Cummins Unit tested positive for the virus on April 11. Shortly after that, 43 inmates that had been housed in the same barracks as that inmate also tested positive.

Smith said only some of the new inmates to test positive at the Cummins Unit are included in the state’s total number of cases, which was 1,695 Friday. 62 inmates and staff at a federal prison in Forrest City have also tested positive for the coronavirus, while 89 staff and inmates at Arkansas Community Correction in Little Rock have been infected as well.

A graph displays the coronavirus infection rate in Arkansas compared to other states in the region.
Credit Governor's Office / YouTube

Hutchinson said May 4 is the target for the state to reach criteria set by the Trump Administration to begin reopening restaurant dining rooms, movie theaters, gyms, places of worship and other venues.

“We’re going to be able to have a little bit more of a normal life and start lifting the restrictions, although we’re still a long ways from a full opening that we would have whenever we get further down the road,” Hutchinson said.

Under the first phase of the Trump Administration’s “Opening Up America Again” plan, states would be allowed to reopen some businesses with “strict” social distancing guidelines in place. People would still be encouraged to work remotely, schools and bars would remain closed, and nursing home visitation would still be suspended.

In order to meet the plan’s criteria, states must have two weeks of declining coronavirus cases, as well as declining cases of illnesses similar to COVID-19 and the flu. States must also have a “robust” testing system in place for at-risk healthcare worker, and be able to treat all patients without crisis care.

Though projections from the University of Washington show Arkansas will reach the peak rate of new coronavirus infections on May 2, Hutchinson said he would consider easing some restrictions on elective surgeries before the state meets the criteria set by the Trump Administration.

“We have more work to do, primarily on the cases, but we’re at a good position to know where we need to launch from and what we need to work on,” Hutchinson said.

A graph shows the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Arkansas.
Credit Governor's Office / YouTube

As of Friday, 93 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, with 23 on a ventilator. So far, 228 healthcare workers and 116 nursing home residents have tested positive for the virus. Of the 1,695 total people to test positive for the coronavirus in the state, 1,065 are considered active cases.

No new deaths from COVID-19 were identified in the state from Thursday to Friday, with the state’s death toll from the disease at 37.

Hutchinson said he had spoken to the family of Navy Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., a Fort Smith native and the first active-duty member of the military to die from COVID-19. The 41-year-old Thacker died Monday in Guam after contracting the disease aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

The former commander of the ship, Capt. Brett Crozier, was relieved of duty after expressing concern over conditions on the aircraft carrier. As of Friday, 660 of the ship’s crew members had tested positive for the virus.