Gov. Asa Hutchinson is ordering all Arkansas schools to be closed starting Tuesday, continuing through the end of the week, to try and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Speaking Sunday alongside health and education officials, he also announced four new cases have been confirmed, bringing the total in the state to 16.
Two of the people are in Garland County and are believed to have become infected through out-of-state travel, Hutchinson said. The other two are in Jefferson County and connected to the Pine Bluff patient who was the first person in Arkansas confirmed to have contracted coronavirus. None of the four new cases involve people being hospitalized and are not children.
School districts will have the option of deciding whether to hold classes on Monday. Hutchinson said that was to allow time for schools and parents to make necessary arrangements. Classes were already to be out the following week for Spring Break, which he said will give officials time to assess the situation and decide whether to reopen schools on March 30.
"At that time, we'll return to normal classroom instruction unless the circumstances dictate otherwise," Hutchinson said.
State Education Commissioner Johnny Key said the mandatory closing of schools was a tough call for the governor to make, but that it was prudent in this situation.
"During this time we’ll be working closely with the superintendents to make sure that they are going through a routine process of sanitizing, cleaning their buildings and preparing those buildings for when school would resume," Key said.
In-state testing for COVID 19 has been severely limited over the last week, with the Arkansas Department of Health only able to conduct 20 tests a day. But as of Sunday, Hutchinson said that had doubled to 40, while for-profit companies are also conducting tests. Two of the four new positive cases announced Sunday had been confirmed by commercial labs, officials said.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will also begin testing samples, which Hutchinson said will allow a capacity of 440 tests to be conducted daily by the end of the week.
Health Secretary Nathaniel Smith said while daily increases in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 can be alarming, he notes that over a hundred people who were suspected of being infected had negative test results.
"These are individuals that we considered to be at high risk – high probability – and yet we’ve gotten a lot more negatives than we have positives. That’s all good news," Dr. Smith said.
Healthcare providers have been unable to keep up with demand for testing by people who are concerned they might be infected with COVID-19. Officials say people should not go to a doctor’s office or hospital emergency rooms without calling first. UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital have set up telephone hotlines and web portals where people can learn more information.
"We encourage people as much as possible to use those types of platforms for screening questions," said UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson. "We also have an off-site location set up near campus so that you can drive through and have screening done to keep patients out of the emergency room."
It’s located at the corner of Shuffield Drive and Jack Stephens Drive in Little Rock, and on Saturday, performed about 500 screenings, Dr. Patterson said.
But one local resident who went through the screening area was upset to learn that, despite potentially being exposed to people who have since tested positive, he was not provided a test. In an interview, Luke Kramer said he attended two work-related conferences earlier this month on both coasts of the U.S., one involving three people who later tested positive.
On Friday, after about a week of being self-quarantined, he went to the drive-thru. After being questioned about his experiences, Kramer was told to drive his vehicle to another area.
"I was approached by a doctor. He told me that I was in a high-risk category, but they would not test me due to the lack of tests that they had available," Kramer said.
He was told to contact the hospital if he began showing any symptoms of coronavirus, which at this point he hasn’t. Kramer called the lack of test kits and overall response from people in Little Rock disturbing.
"I observed just driving through the city that the mall was packed, the restaurants were overflowing, and there doesn’t seem to be any urgency from some of our citizens about containing the spread of the virus," he said. "It’s hard for us to realize if there are hotspots in our own community... if we don’t have proper testing for our citizens."
Meanwhile Attorney General Leslie Rutledge says some in the state are now seeking to profit from the situation. She joined officials at Sunday’s press conference to warn against price gouging. Special emergency state laws have now gone into effect, Rutledge said, which prohibit raising prices on essential products like water, toilet paper and medicine above 10% from prices immediately before the emergency.
The laws apply to traditional retailers as well as individuals selling merchandise through other means, like online sites like Facebook Marketplace or Amazon. Rutledge encouraged citizens to report any price spikes to her office and said penalties can be fine as high as $10,000 per violation.
Finally, Hutchinson asked Arkansans not to hoard goods like toilet paper. Shelves for toilet paper have been bare at stores throughout the state, with some people going from store-to-store to try and stock up.
"We need to avoid panic buying," Hutchinson said. "Grocery stores will continue to be open in the future. Grocery stores will not be closed, and while it is wise to have enough for a short period of time in the house, we don’t need to have purchases that are going to last for a month or two months."
This story has been expanded and revised. Reporting from KUAR's news partner Talk Business & Politics contributed to this story.