Excerpts of Today’s Media Update
We’re highlighting portions of the media update that seem relevant, but we encourage you to watch the full update. If you find a part that seems like it should be called out here, let us know.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson [9:59]:
First of all, whenever you have this level of new cases, that challenges the resources on our contact tracing, which is a fundamental part of our strategy. And we have to be able to do that effectively. We have to put the resources into the contact tracing, the testing and the isolation. And so, I’ve directed the Department of Health to double the number of contact tracers that we are going to be adding to our current capacity. I want to double the number of new contact tracers from 350 to 700. This will be — in round numbers — an additional cost of 22 million dollars. I will be asking the CARES Steering Committee to consider that additional funding, as well as the General Assembly and the appropriation process. But that is absolutely essential as we look at cases that come up or increase in different parts of the state. We have to have these resources to follow up with our contact tracing. You start with our testing, our radar system.
And this month, of course, we did 120,000 tests. That will go up some more, likely close to 140,000 or so by the end of the month. I’ve set as a goal — with Dr. Smith, of course — to test 180,000 Arkansans in the month of July. And this will mean that we will be testing not 2% of the population or 4% of the population, but if we reach that goal, we will be testing 6% of the population of Arkansas. That obviously depends upon demand. It depends upon resources. But you have to set goals and we’re hopeful that we can make that goal and expect to make that goal, because that is an important part of our strategy as well.
Dr. Smith will be having through his Department of Health three surge events in Washington County and Benton County in the coming weeks to continue to enlarge our testing capacity and radar system there in those counties.
Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nathaniel Smith [15:24]:
As the governor’s mentioned, we’ve been focusing efforts in Benton and Washington County. We’re starting to see some progress there. But we have we have other areas where we have increased cases coming up. We have this outbreak that we have detected within the Ouachita River Correctional Facility and then a new nursing home. So, we’re going to focus our attention on these other areas as well as we continue to work to bring the outbreak in the northwest part of the state under control.
What’s the timeline to get these additional 350 contact tracers into the state? I mean, I’m sure that’s going to take a lot of effort to get 350 more people on board.
Governor Hutchinson [16:20]:
It will. And we’re going to be working with our procurement team to make sure we do this in the right way, working with the CARES Act Steering Committee to get the funding. So, you know we’re hoping — I believe it is — by mid-July to have the first set of 350 contact tracers on board. For doubling that amount, we’re going to have to look at that time frame. So, we’ll have more information later, but we have set that in motion today.
Do you think that’s going to be enough, with the way things are trending?
Governor Hutchinson [16:58]:
Well, that’s a good question, because whenever we first — Dr. Smith went to the CARES Act Steering Committee and said we need X number of dollars to handle our contact tracing, our testing, we were at a much smaller daily case number than we are now. So, we’re now we’re dealing with 16,000 or 17,000 cases, cumulative. But we have an increase every day that we have to do this. And so that’s one of the reasons to escalate it. Obviously with bringing on that number, we have to do — there has to be training, you have to identify those. But it’s going to be essential, whether it’s now or whether it’s in the fall, and hopefully that will be more than sufficient. But right now, we have an insufficient capacity to do the job that we need to in terms of contact tracing.
Jay Bir [17:58]:
With New York, Connecticut, those guys kind of returning the favor to Arkansas, considering a hot spot — I guess, kind of what’s your reaction to that? Especially with — after Kansas having done the same thing now.
Governor Hutchinson [18:12]:
Well, obviously, we’ve got work to do in the state and we’re going to do the work to reduce the spread. And I don’t know what other states they’ve added. Whenever you look at the list of states that are increasing, you’ve got Arizona, you’ve got Florida, you’ve got Texas. So, if you — in Arkansas we’ve really moved beyond that, because we’re actually — we want everybody to be careful and this is really an important reminder that, as you travel for summer vacation somewhere, you’ve got to be careful where you’re going, what you’re doing and what steps you take when you come back, because you — it’s not just that you’re going to a different environment, but it could be someplace that they’re not as careful in protecting against the spread. And so, I urge everyone to be careful as you do travel, but we have stopped the restrictions for different states coming here, because they’ve reached their peak in New York and they’re coming down. But it’s a large part of the U.S. economy that’s right now is growing in their cases. And I don’t know that that’s effective to say we’re going to start isolating the different states.
Jay Bir [19:38]:
… that working list that we had a lot time ago? Has that evolved or are we kind of just sort of ignoring that now?
Governor Hutchinson [19:46]:
We dropped that because where we were as a state and also because we had made other restrictions and adjustments that we put into place.
Why do you think — we have one of the fastest growing number of cases, compared to our population. We’re like right there in the top four, which is why we’re on New York’s list. Why do you think that is — us compared to other states, why we’re growing so fast?
Governor Hutchinson [20:29]:
Well, as we’ve pointed out before, we have a large percent of our cases that come in minority populations that are heavily engaged in the food industry and the processing industry, and that’s a large part of our reason for increase in cases.
I don’t know whether other states have that level of concentration or not. But it’s also a matter of timing. You’ve seen other states — Louisiana had the fastest growing level of cases there. You’ve got Mississippi that’s growing. You’ve got Florida that now is spiking. You’ve got California. No one sheltered in place more heavily and with more restrictions in California, but yet they’re spiking up.
And so, to me, it really indicates that this is flowing across the United States at different times and in in different ways, but no state is immune from it. That’s what we’ve seen. And so, New York — hopefully, they won’t have a second wave in New York — but they had a really tough first wave that we all learned from. But that’s what I think you see is that this is a matter of timing as to when it hits each state.
Jay Bir [21:57]:
So at this point, is it just a matter of — we need to just weather the storm?
Governor Hutchinson [22:02]:
No, it’s not just a matter of weathering the storm. It is about implementing a strategy that I think you’re starting to see effectiveness in Benton and Washington County. That was dramatic increases in cases that have started to decline in the number of increase. We’re still watching that very closely but it’s leveling off there and it’s because of the concentration of testing, of isolation, of our contact tracing. That strategy works.
And so, that’s what you implement so you don’t just lay back and take it. You implement that strategy.
But it’s also about every individual citizen making the right decisions as to what is necessary to protect yourself and others, wearing a mask, socially distancing. It does make a difference.
Dr. Smith [23:03]:
Yes, there’s a number of things that we have done, are doing and will do more of.
One the governor mentions is testing. We’ve really scaled up our testing and we will continue to do that. I’m taking the governor’s [goal of] 180,000 as a floor rather than a ceiling.
And that’s critical for us to identify those chains of transmission so we can interrupt them. The contact tracing is critical. As of this morning, we do not have a backlog on contact tracing. But we’re trying to do contact tracing with much fewer staff than are needed. In fact, our 350 request to the to the CARES Act Steering Committee was based on the assumption that we would have about 1,000 active cases. Well, we have over 5,000 active cases now. We’ve become very efficient in what we’re doing, but we need more. So, that’s going to help us.
In terms of prevention, though, we need everyone to do their part. We’ve talked about face masks because that’s a very important and underused resource that we have for interrupting transmission. But also avoiding crowds, washing hands, all these things we’ve been talking about. I think people know about it, but there’s a difference between knowing and actually doing it. So, that’s something that we’re going to need to continue to do and continue to encourage.
And then our ultimate game plan on this is likely to be a vaccine. And there are — at least the first candidate is going into phase three trials in July — next month. Actually, my chief medical officer, Dr. Jose Romero, is not with us today because he is chairing the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. And when I left the department, they were talking about COVID-19 vaccinations. And so, there’s progress being made there. That’s not something that we are doing that primarily here in Arkansas, but we’re definitely a part of that, contributing to that effort. So, these are the things that will make a difference, but each of us have a part to play in it.
Do you know how many people we have asked to quarantine? Would it be roughly one-to-one for all the 5,000 active cases?
Dr. Smith [25:40]
I haven’t run our numbers recently on that, but the last time we had about 2.8 contacts for every case. And so, for every case we would have almost three individuals who would need to be quarantined.
Let me ask you, the earlier question about New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — as we’ve heard before, the mental gymnastics over the positivity rates. But in that list of states that those governor’s listed, they said their criteria was a rolling seven-day positivity average of over 10%. Do you have any idea where they’re getting that number and can you help us understand why our numbers don’t show the same thing?
Governor Hutchinson [26:30]:
The numbers are the numbers, so I don’t know how they’re interpreting it in a different way. Perhaps we can have some conversations with them and see where they’re getting that information. But it’s not consistent with our data.
Note: Neal Gladner later clarified that there state thresholds were based on a 10-day rolling average for new infections per 100,000.
There’s a large number of positive cases in the Benton County Jail. How are the detainees being released from the county jails contributing to the community spread and what should the county jails be doing before they release detainee?
Governor Hutchinson [27:26]:
The judges, the sheriffs in the jurisdiction set the terms of release if they’re not state prisoners. And so, they can release some of the prisoners under compassionate release or if they meet their bond requirements. So they can reduce their bond requirements. So, those are local decisions in those terms.
But in terms of a public health standpoint, we ask them — just like we do in the prison system — that you isolate your positives from your negatives so that it’s not spread within the jail itself. And then, whenever they are released, then they should be tested. And they should not be positive at that point or they would be isolated. If they are positive at that point, they would continue their isolation.
Dr. Smith [28:35]:
I thought perhaps part of that would be, “When people are released, if they’re positive, does that influence community spread?” There are situations in which — for example — people have been released from a correctional facility and we’ve had to work to make accommodations for them to safely isolate. And there have been certainly many cases where we’ve done orders of isolation to limit their contact with other people after they’re released.
The one I wanted to ask you about — there was a lawsuit filed in Pulaski County yesterday regarding absentee voting, seeking either no-excuse absentee voting or concerns about contracting COVID being allowed as an excuse for casting absentee ballot. I wanted to see what you thought about that lawsuit and also if you’ve had a chance to revisit what you plan on doing heading into the November election in terms of allowing no-excuse absentee ballots.
Governor Hutchinson [29:44]:
I have been in touch with the State Board of Election Commissioners as well as the Secretary of State. We’ve reached out to the counties to get their thoughts or concerns on the November election. And my time frame is to make some decisions, based upon their guidance and their request, sometime before August 1. And that way there’s adequate time to prepare for the election and to make any adjustments that are needed. But we continue to work with them, listen to them. And if there’s some adjustments that need to be made, then we will have time to make them between now and August 1.
We’ve been speaking with workers at processing plants in northwest Arkansas. They’ve expressed concern about the current number of cases in Tyson poultry plants in this area and what they say is a lack of COVID testing for employees. Two of the people that we’ve spoken to who work at Tyson plants said that they’ve only been tested by Tyson once since the pandemic began. My question for you is — do you think that it is safe for the Tyson plants in northwest Arkansas to remain open, especially given the number of confirmed COVID cases and the large percent of asymptomatic cases that they announced on Friday?
Governor Hutchinson [31:38]:
The question relates to the poultry facilities and the testing that’s being done there and whether they should remain open. And the answer is yes, they should remain open. They’re a vital part of our food chain, not just in Arkansas but across our nation. And they have gone to very extraordinary lengths to do testing, to do their own tracing as needed, and to put their facilities in compliance — and even above that — with the public health requirements. They work closely with the Department of Health.
In terms of — here again, we’re starting to see a decline in the increase in number of cases and it’s because we’ve really focused on these outbreaks, getting them under control, and we’re seeing some success in that.
In terms of the community spread, that’s part of why the CDC has come in, to make sure in northwest Arkansas, as we work with minority communities, that we overcome the language barriers, they understand the risk, they understand what they can do in their own communities and their own homes to protect against the spread. We believe that will have some success.
And so, you’ve got really two parts of the environment one is within the facility itself and the other is by the workers in the community. We’re addressing both parts and we hope that we’ll be successful.
Dr. Smith [33:29]:
These will be in addition.
Governor Hutchinson [33:32]:
We have over 200 current contact tracers within the Department of Health. And so, these additional 700 will be in addition to those.
Could you talk a little bit more about the state’s efforts, in terms of COVID-19 testing for the 180,000? How the state plans to make sure there are sufficient supplies?
Governor Hutchinson [34:02]:
In terms of supplies, you break it down with our commercial testing through LabCorp and others, that supply has continued to increase. That is really dependent upon the demand of the people of Arkansas as they have symptoms or they want to be tested or they’re in a category that they can be tested. They go and they get tested. We want to make sure that that continued availability is there.
And then secondly, we have our Department of Health, we have our UAMS testing, we have other efforts that are out there. That’s more within our control. And that’s something that we’re continuing to have an adequate supply at this time on our reagents. Dr. Smith mentioned the other day that we had some defective transmittal materials that — media materials — vials. And so, they were defective, but we’ve had a replacement for those that are coming in. That’s going to give us confidence that we can do the tests that we need next year — next month.
Dr. Smith [35:27]:
Lab testing has always been a challenge for us from the very beginning. And supply chain — just as you think you’ve got one problem solved, something else comes. And so, I’m not going to make any definitive statements except to say we’re doing well right now, as of today. The governor’s really kind of let me off a little bit easy on this goal of a 180,000. That’s a lot of tests at six percent of our population. That’s only about 6,000 a day. And then, since we have 31 days in July, I get a little buffer. We did over 7,000 tests yesterday. Of those, 5,635 were from commercial labs, 1,127 were from the public health lab — and that’s our all-time high — and then UAMS did 612 — which may be an all-time high for them as well.
So, we’re going full guns on the testing. And we need to because that’s what we need to do to identify individuals as soon as possible, so that we can interrupt the transmission, the spread of COVID-19.