Following hours of debate, state lawmakers approved $23 million to go toward improving the Arkansas Department of Health’s efforts to track the spread of the coronavirus.
Members of the Arkansas Legislative Council on Tuesday approved two separate requests for federal CARES Act funds. One provides $7 million to the nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Council to enhance contact tracing, testing and outreach to the state’s Latinx and Marshallese populations.
The other provides $16 million to two companies currently under contract with the state, General Dynamics Information Technology and the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, to add at least 700 staff conducting contact tracing in the state.
The legislative panel had previously declined to act on both funding requests, but at Tuesday’s meeting, Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, underscored the urgency of addressing the COVID-19 outbreak in the state’s Marshallese community.
"How can we not show the same sense of urgency for a population that has 400% the rate of infection of the rest of the population, that has 60% of the deaths even though they only account for 4% of the population. If there was ever a time that it is time for us to not delay, it is this," Hendren said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended greater outreach to Latinx and Marshallese communities in a report released after a CDC team visited northwest Arkansas. The report stated, as of mid-June, Latinx people accounted for 45% of COVID-19 cases in the region, while Marshallese people represented 20% of cases and 38% of deaths.
Numerous lawmakers spoke against the request, including Republican Rep. Robin Lundstrum of Springdale, who questioned the efficacy of the state’s contact tracing.
"I love the concept, I'm just not sure we need more contact tracing and testing when [Marshallese people] are not going to respond. They're scared of us, and they're hungry," Lundstrum said. "This is a community that doesn't trust us. They’re not going to respond to a phone call."
Democratic State Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock responded to some lawmakers’ concerns about well-documented mistrust of medical providers among minority populations, and whether that could affect the state’s contact tracing efforts.
"I don’t want anybody to misconstrue this as something that’s about just a race issue or an ethnic issue. There's a reason for those distrusts," Elliott said. "I wish that, say, the Marshallese community just trusted all of us, but that's not the case. That's what we need to respond to; not what we think ought to happen ourselves because of our own experiences, but what do we do to actually get to folks who need help?"
The $7 million approved by lawmakers will go to the Northwest Arkansas Council to fund bilingual contact tracers, case managers and testing staff at UAMS Northwest and other local clinics in six Arkansas counties.