165 people in Arkansas have tested positive for COVID-19, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Sunday, an increase of 47 cases from Saturday. With testing being expanded this week, officials are warning the number will continue to rise.
44 of the cases involved people at three nursing homes in the state, according to Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith. Seniors and people with underlying health conditions are most at risk from the virus.
Smith said most of those cases came from Briarwood Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Little Rock, where 35 residents and six workers tested positive. The other facilities are Apple Creek Health and Rehabilitation in Centerton and The Villages of General Baptist West in Pine Bluff.
"We are in the process of testing all the residents and all the staff at all three of these nursing home facilities, but we don’t have all those results yet," Smith said.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will begin conducting in-house testing on Monday, said Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson. With a backlog of cases, he said they are having to determine which samples to test first.
"We will be prioritizing in-patents who need testing and also healthcare workers who are suspected of being COVID-19 positive," Patterson said. "We’ll be providing information on our website about sample submission and working with the Department of Health to prioritize which samples to process first. I would like everybody to keep in mind that as we increase testing capacity within the state, that’s also going to mean that the number of positive assays will increase."
With many businesses closed and people being told to try and avoid spreading the virus, the governor said unemployment filings are up sharply.
"As we look at those claims, they are something that we’ve never seen before, in really my lifetime, in which we’ve had this kind of global economic downturn to the extent that we have," Hutchinson said.
The governor is asking the Arkansas Legislative Council to approve shifting $1.1 million in rainy day funds to go toward unemployment assistance.
The state’s online website for people to file for unemployment hasn’t been able to handle the volume of traffic, Hutchinson said.
"Our system wasn’t designed for this. We’re trying to upgrade our systems."
Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston said the state has been working on addressing the technical problems.
"We feel very confident that we’ve found some workarounds that exist linking to the federal system. That’s where the bottleneck has been the last few days. That’s going to help alleviate those pressures, and we’re going to be able to see that process go a whole lot smoother," Preston said.
Beginning Monday, Preston said a telephone hotline will be in service, allowing people to file claims. The number is 844-908-2178.
"We’ll have people around the clock answering those phone calls," Preston said, adding that the only ways people should apply for unemployment assistance is by phone or online. "[We] want to remind folks to please stay away from going directly to our workforce centers around the state. While they remain open, those folks are working on processing claims. They don’t need to be out interfacing with the public."
Meanwhile Hutchinson expressed frustration Sunday with federal authorities instructing states to take the lead in providing medical facilities with supplies like facemasks, gowns and gloves.
"The federal government bought up most of the domestic supply, put it in their national strategic storehouse in which the states can request allocations of personal protective equipment. We received 25 percent of the amount of PPE that we requested," Hutchinson said.
The governor has committed $30 million toward obtaining the vital supplies, but said most of it is no longer available. That leaves Arkansas competing with other states and countries facing the global health pandemic
"We haven’t been promised that it’s coming, so we’re looking at purchasing some on the market," Hutchinson said. "We can’t expect small hospitals around Arkansas to be able to compete in that environment, so that’s why we’re doing the statewide procurement effort."
He said the state is considering whether to try and manufacture the supplies, but said getting the raw material could also be a challenge.
Of the 165 cases reported in the state Sunday, officials said 62 are adults over the age of 65, 93 are adults between the ages of 19 to 64, and 10 are children.