Arkansas has experienced its first deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday that two people had died, while the number of positive cases in the state has risen to 218. Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith would not provide details on how the two people who died might have acquired the virus, but said neither had traveled out of state recently and neither were from nursing homes.
The age of one person was in the 50s, while the other was over 80. One of the two people had a prior health condition, Smith said. Faulkner County Deputy Coroner Robert Edwards said earlier Tuesday that one of was a 91-year-old man who died at Conway Regional Medical Center.
Hutchinson said spread of the virus, with 44 additional cases since Monday’s press briefing, was still “the calm before the storm.”
“Now I know that many people don't see this as a calm, but I think the way that is phrased makes us understand that we're still on the lower end of the slope as it goes up,” Hutchinson said.
The governor said the state is looking at how to secure more hospital beds, ventilators and respirators, while also getting more personal protective equipment like facemasks, gloves and gowns. Several pallets from the national stockpile arrived early Tuesday morning, he said, which included 27,000 masks. A shipment of 1 million units ordered by the state from outside the country is to arrive this weekend.
Smith says private laboratories have eclipsed the state’s public health labs in the number of positive test results for the first time. He said the state’s testing capacity will go up, though shortages of testing equipment and chemicals have been reported.
“Right now we are able to do around 100 [tests per day], give or take, at our lab. We are bringing on a second platform which will enable us to increase that, and we are also bringing on additional equipment to support our current lab-developed test hopefully to get up to above 200 day,” Smith said. “UAMS of course has got additional equipment that will allow them a higher throughput.”
Hutchinson said that would provide Arkansas with enough supplies for 60 days at the current usage rate. If the number of positive cases goes up, as expected, consumption will go up and the supply will last for a shorter period of time.
To address the budget shortfall to the state, the governor said he would like a special session of the Arkansas General Assembly to begin Thursday. He said a proclamation won’t be issued until there is a clear consensus among legislative leaders to have a session.
Asked about President Trump’s suggestion that life can begin returning to normal in the U.S. by Easter, Hutchinson said that was not likely. The Republican governor said the president is trying to project hope to the country, but noted the virus is continuing to spread at a rapid rate.
Smith said 14 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized, with six on ventilators, and 38 who are in nursing homes. Pike, Cross and Hempstead counties have also seen their first cases of the coronavirus.