The grimmest assessment yet from Arkansas leaders about the impact of the COVID-19 virus predicts 1,000 more deaths by Christmas.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that a White House assessment of the situation places Arkansas “on the precipice of a rapid acceleration in cases which will be followed with new hospital admissions.”
“That’s a statement that will get your attention as a leader. We look at the holiday season that is approaching and we have to be mindful that if Arkansas continues at the present pace over the last two days, Arkansas will have an additional 1,000 Arkansans that will die as a result of COVID-19 between now and Christmas,” he said during a press conference.
In the past two days, the Arkansas Department of Health has reported almost 2,500 new cases of the virus, and 44 deaths. Since March, 2,183 Arkansans have died from the virus.
The number of hospitalizations is approaching 900 statewide. The new cases and hospitalizations point toward a surge in cases that can’t be controlled, said Dr. Jose Romero, secretary of the Health Department.
“This is like a boulder rolling down a hill. It will come a time when we cannot stop it. It will continue to escalate and will eventually overwhelm our healthcare facilities. Now is the time to act. I cannot stress enough the importance of the three Ws. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Watch your distance,” Romero pleaded.
Hutchinson said he expects recommendations soon from a new task force about coping with medical facility staffing shortages, and the statewide coordination of bed space for critical COVID patients.
The worsening health emergency will be a cloud that hangs over the cheer of the Christmas season, he said.
“That should inspire us to do well, to follow the guidelines, to do everything we can to break that trend and that is our goal.”
Hutchinson and Romero agree that COVID-19 is spreading mostly through family and community interaction. That’s part of the reason why the governor is reluctant to place new capacity restrictions on businesses, or to close schools.
Romero reminded the public that residents of nursing homes are especially vulnerable to infections.
It’s traditional in many families to bring members in nursing homes together for Thanksgiving meals. This year, this “may be a detriment to their health. You need to consider postponing your Thanksgiving with them to a later date,” Romero said.
“I understand the situation. You want to be together, but it’s a time to protect them, and protect their lives,” Romero said.
Hutchinson said the Arkansas Department of Health has conducted more than 3,500 checks since June to make sure that businesses are complying with mask-wearing, social distancing and other recommendations.
Separately, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division – tasked with checking bars and restaurants for compliance – has conducted 3,700 checks, issued 181 violation tickets, and made 210 verbal warnings.
ABC Director Mike Moore, who was until recently the sheriff of Boone County, said his agents are emphasizing education and accountability among business owners. But that may change.
“Four months is a long time to be giving warnings. In the coming days when we find people who are non-compliant, there’s going to be more accountability to see if we can get some better results,” Moore said.
He had a message for Arkansans who don’t want to wear masks in public.
“If you’re not afraid of the virus, we understand that. But the folks you may infect – that’s another issue. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, please do it for those around you,” Moore said.
Stacy Hurst, secretary of Arkansas Parks. Heritage and Tourism, updated information about the COVID-19 Business Interruption Grant program.
She urged Arkansas businesses to check on their eligibility and to apply by November 25 through the website, arkansasready.gov .
Help is available to walk businesses through the application process.
Johnny Key, Arkansas Secretary of Education, said that since November 8, 62 Arkansas schools have made “onsite modifications” – decisions to send students in a classroom, grade, school or district from campuses to a “virtual” learning environment. An additional 204 “modifications” has been closed, meaning that classes or schools have reverted to normal operations.
Key said it is the collective goal of the department to maximize the number of students for onsite instruction for the maximum amount of time this school year.
The White House COVID-19 task force asked Arkansas to consider pausing school athletic activities. Hutchinson is opposed to the idea.
Hutchinson said the activities themselves are not a major factor in the spread of COVID, but rather the social activities in which students and fans engage before and after games.
“The activities that surround high school athletics could be going out for pizza with your friends afterwards. There is the social activities part of it,” Hutchinson said.
He does want schools to look at better planning of activities. While he did not specifically note the practice, it is common for high schools to have two or three athletic events, such as junior and senior volleyball or basketball games, in the same venue in succession.
“Should they be scheduled differently so crowds are not exchanging constantly? There’s not an easy answer. We don’t plan on cancelling athletics. That would be terrible for the health of our young people. We will look at ways to better control that environment,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchison also adamantly opposes calls to lower restaurant capacities.
“If you put the restrictions back down to 1/3, you would be shutting down a whole bunch of businesses. They’re there by a thread in some cases. They have managed with two-thirds capacities. If you cut that back further, you’re going to be putting a lot of them under water, and you’re going to put a lot of them unemployed,” he said.