State health officials are advising the general public not to panic about the spread of the coronavirus to Arkansas, but that it will inevitably do so.
At a news conference at the state Capitol Monday, leaders of the Public Health, Welfare and Labor committees of the Arkansas House and Senate gave an update on their efforts to educate citizens and prepare for an eventual case of the disease caused by the virus, called COVID-19.
As of Monday, 12 people in the state had tested negative for the coronavirus, though cases have been identified in neighboring states. Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, Medical Director for Outbreak Response at the Arkansas Department of Health, urged people with symptoms to go to their medical provider instead of county health units or hospital emergency rooms.
“What we're looking for are fever, cough, shortness of breath, something like that… and we would encourage them, rather than to come to the local health unit, to go to their provider and to call ahead because that health care provider needs to be aware that they're coming,” Dillaha said.
Additionally, the Department of Health sent a directive to nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the state to screen all visitors and employees for coronavirus symptoms. Staffers will have their temperatures taken before every shift, and will be sent home if they have a fever over 100.4 degrees.
Dillaha said the state’s testing capacity will soon increase from the current rate of up to 20 tests per day, allowing for a quicker turnaround time. Clinicians can also order testing kits through laboratory companies.
House public health committee chair Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, said the directive is a measured response given the number of elderly people that have died from complications of COVID-19.
“The average age of the fatalities worldwide is 80 for this virus. No one globally under the age of 18 has died from this virus,” Ladyman said.
Ladyman said it is inevitable that Arkansas will see a confirmed case of the virus, but that a widespread outbreak would be unlikely.
“We don't need to run out and buy toilet paper and gloves and masks. That only makes the situation worse, because we are at low risk. There are a number of factors that make us low risk. I'll just give you one of them: we don't have an international airport here,” Ladyman said.
Cases have been identified in St. Louis, Memphis, Texas and Oklahoma, while samples from a “presumptive” case near New Orleans have been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing.