Arkansas has seen three consecutive days of rising daily increases in new coronavirus cases as officials prepare to loosen some restrictions put in place due to the pandemic.
In his daily briefing Friday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state has 2,741 cases and one more death from COVID-19, bringing the total to 46. Of the total cases, 1,763 are considered active with 104 people hospitalized and 25 on a ventilator.
Though the state has added almost 1,000 new coronavirus cases since Monday, Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said Arkansas could still feasibly lift some restrictions on businesses by May 4.
“At the levels that we are at, a small cluster can cause an aberration in our curve. And so we’re looking at overall averages, we’re looking at a general trend. Obviously if we have cases increasing every day, we need to rethink that,” Smith said.
While most of the three-day increase in cases stems from inmates and staff at the Cummins Unit state prison, Smith said there has been a slight increase in cases from northeast and northwest Arkansas. He said upticks in cases from congregate settings, like prisons and nursing homes, make it difficult to predict when the state will see the highest rate of coronavirus infection.
“It’s a little hard to identify a peak, I think in this case, until you’re well past it. We were going kind of steadily downward for a while, and then we have had a few days of an upward trend, so… our curve is not really the kind of shape that would be easy to model mathematically,” Smith said.
Smith said a total of 690 inmates and over 30 staff at the Cummins Unit have tested positive for the virus, as have 90 inmates and staff at the Federal Correctional Institution, Forrest City. Additionally, 285 healthcare workers and 278 residents and staff of nursing homes have been infected.
While May 4 remains his target date to begin reopening restaurants, gyms and other venues, Hutchinson said he will take the same gradual approach to lifting restrictions that he applied when imposing them.
“It’s very similar to what we did on the outset, when we had enormous pressure to shelter in place… we took a targeted approach to what we were doing,” Hutchinson said. “We’re taking a more measured approach that is based upon the information that we have that is unique to Arkansas, and making judgments industry by industry.”
Hutchinson also announced Friday that a ban on certain routine dental procedures will be lifted on May 18, though the Arkansas Department of Health has not yet said which specific procedures can resume.
Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston said roughly 170,000 Arkansans have filed for unemployment insurance, and that independent contractors and other self-employed Arkansans will soon be able to get assistance through the $2 trillion federal CARES Act.
“We’re estimating anywhere from about 125,000 at a minimum and beyond who are going to file for that Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, so we want to make sure that that system is fully capable to handle that large volume of people,” Preston said.
Preston said the state will receive additional funding for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which has already distributed $2.7 billion to Arkansas businesses for payroll expenses. He also said Arkansans who have lost employer-based health insurance can apply for government-assisted healthcare through the state’s Insurance Department by calling 1 (844) 355-3262.
Gov. Hutchinson said he would also commit $1 million to go toward approving about 100 bridge loans for small businesses through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. That follows $5 million in loans that Hutchinson said retained about 3,500 jobs in the state.
One day into Hutchinson’s two-day Arkansas Surge Campaign to encourage every Arkansan with COVID-19 symptoms to get tested, he said laboratories in the state had completed 2,808 coronavirus tests over the past 24 hours; the largest number of tests the state has ever completed in a single day.