White House Panel: Virus Situation Worsening in Arkansas

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LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ top health official and a White House task force on Tuesday warned the state is on the verge of a rapid rise in coronavirus cases, while Gov. Asa Hutchinson rejected the panel’s call to significantly scale back restaurants’ indoor capacity in most of the state.

Dr. Jose Romero, the state’s Health Secretary, and the White House Coronavirus Task Force issued dire warnings about the state, where COVID-19 hospitalizations continued surging to record high numbers.

“This is like a boulder rolling down a hill. There will come a time where we cannot stop it,” Romero said. “It will continue to escalate and will eventually overwhelm our health care facilities.”

Romero’s comments echoed a report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which said the state “is on the precipice of a rapid, accelerating increase in cases which will be followed with new hospital admissions.”

The task force recommended restaurants limit indoor capacity to less than 25% in the 52 counties classified as “red” or “orange,” calling it an effective practice. The panel’s report, released Tuesday by the state, also recommends limiting bar hours in those counties until the rate of new cases and test positivity decreases.

Arkansas currently limits bars, restaurants and other businesses to two-thirds capacity.

“We share the strong concern of Arkansas leaders that the current situation is worsening and that there is a limited time window to limit further cases and avoid increases in hospitalizations and deaths,” the panel’s report said. “The Governor’s active measures are commended.”

Hutchinson, a Republican who has resisted calls to place more restrictions on businesses, rejected the capacity limit and said it would effectively put many restaurants out of business.

“They’re there by a thread in some cases,” Hutchinson said. “They have managed with a two-thirds capacity, which is already limited, and if you cut that back further you’re going to be putting a lot of them under water and you’re going to be putting a lot of people unemployed.”

Arkansas was among a handful of states that never issued a stay-at-home order during the pandemic, though the state has had other restrictions in place including a mask mandate.

Arkansas’ probable and confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 1,554 to 135,092 on Tuesday, and the state’s COVID-19 deaths increased by 20 to 2,245. The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations rose by 34 to a new high of 895.

The actual number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested and people can carry the virus but not feel sick.

Hutchinson warned that another 1,000 people in the state would die from COVID-19 by Christmas if the state continued its current pace. He called that prediction a “cloud” hanging over the holiday season that should inspire people to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines.

Hutchinson met Monday with a task force he formed to address the surge in virus cases and hospitalizations and said he expected recommendations from the panel on staffing shortages and statewide coordination of hospital bed space. The governor said he also expected the panel to weigh in on ways to slow the virus’s spread in the community, though he has said he didn’t expect it to call for widespread closure of businesses.

About 26% of the state’s 9,144 hospital beds and 7% of its 1,103 intensive care unit beds are available, according to the Department of Health. There are 350 COVID-19 patients in ICUs around the state.

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