Arkansas officials defend COVID-19 response from national critics

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — At an increasingly tense daily briefing amid a spike in new coronavirus cases, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and State Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith defended their efforts so far from critics who say states like Arkansas may be rushing to reopen.

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“Anybody who looks at the decline in positivity, the decline in the cases over that period, that we met the criteria for phase one,” the Republican governor said Tuesday, referring to the rough outline put forward by the White House for how states should emerge from strict quarantines.

But the governor had to deliver that defense after announcing 121 new cases in the state, with 100 of them found in the community and not inside a prison, as had been the case with other spikes in the last two weeks. Earlier, members of the White House task force spoke remotely before the a committee of the U.S. Senate, with Dr. Anthony Fauci issuing broad cautions and warnings about states that may be in a hurry to end lock-downs.

“I think their statements have to do with the nation as a whole and of particular concern for this period of time,” Dr. Smith said. “They’re not addressed specifically to Arkansas.”

And both Dr. Smith and his colleagues at the Arkansas Dept. of Health say those specifics about the state have been different throughout the crisis and won’t fit the criteria laid out by President Trump’s advisors.

“Arkansas does not fit neatly into the Opening Up America Again phases,” said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the ADH director of outbreak response, referring to the White House’s plan that sets checkpoints for states toward reopening. “We never had a complete shut down. In effect, Arkansas was already at phase one.”

And Arkansas faced criticism for that decision as well. It is why the state is now often linked with places like Georgia and Florida, where governors resisted strict sheltering orders until conditions became alarming. Those states are now among the early openers criticized by experts like Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control during the Obama Administration, who told the New York Times science wasn’t guiding these decisions, but instead, “politics, ideology and public pressure.” 

The Tuesday spike included 27 cases in St. Francis County, home of a federal prison with a known outbreak. The governor vowed to rush testing there to gauge the amount of spread in the community, particularly Forrest City, the county seat.

It is spikes like those that Dr. Fauci pointed to as dangers to reopening if they were signs people there stopped or ignored mitigation measures. Gov. Hutchinson said he had heard a large graduation party was being planned in Forrest City and strongly advised against it.

“I feel if that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” Dr. Fauci told senators during his testimony.

But the governor and his advisors say they understand that and that it’s time to look ahead.

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“And that’s where the debate is now and that is where we are,” the governor said. “Phase one, and when can we get to phase two. That’s why it’s so critical to stay on the right path.”

“We’re going to take action based on what we’re seeing in today’s numbers,” Dr. Smith said. “And that’s how we will be doing it really pretty much going forward until COVID-19 is in the history books.”