Dr. Nate Smith

Governor Hutchinson today chalked up the increased numbers of COVID-19 cases to increased testing, and that is surely part of the reason for the new peak of more than 3,000 active cases. But he didn’t directly respond to whether a sharp increase in the number of people hospitalized with the disease didn’t also indicate that it was spreading more rapidly. One week ago, on June 3, 138 people were hospitalized. Today, the governor announced 181 were hospitalized, a record number and a 31 percent increase from seven days ago.

However, in conversation after the governor’s press conference, Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith acknowledged that yes, increased testing does not fully account for the rise in cases, and yes, it was a concern. However, he said the health department and Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe had been checking in with hospitals, and that none had more than 27 patients, the number hospitalized in the last 24 hours at CHI St. Vincent. He said Mercy Rogers and Washington Regional Medical Center had good surge plans in place and that it would not be hard to activate those plans. “They’ve done a lot to optimize their capacity,” Smith said. Mercy, with cases in the “low 20s,” has more than the other hospitals in the Northwest Arkansas region, but if needed it could do what’s called “load balancing” — shifting patients to other facilities or reducing elective surgeries. He noted early disease models that predicted Arkansas would have as few as 2,000 hospitalizations and as many as 10,000 in mid-May (estimates that were made if no social distancing or shelter-in-place orders were made), and that hospitals acted quickly to meet the demand.

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Smith said he was “as confident as we’re going to get” that going into Phase 2 was safe. He said that contact tracing has not turned up any real evidence that Phase 1 openings here or in other states have contributed to the rise in the infection rate.

A couple of weeks ago, numbers began to rise again, Governor Hutchinson said the state would not retreat from Phase 1. That suggests there will be no turning back from Phase 2 should cases continue to surge. Asked about that, Smith said the governor was a “practical individual,” and noted that he had once said the state would not close its schools, but reversed himself “when circumstances dictated something else.”

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Smith acknowledged the concerns in the community about the rise in cases, and said those concerns were proper. But, he added, “we don’t need to let that concern fixate on something that doesn’t seem to be the cause.” The recent surge, he said, is driven mostly by the Washington County and Benton County areas and that it was related to the poultry industry.

Of the 288 positive results reported today, 60 were at the regional correction facility in Brickeys, in Lee County. Smith said that was a “fairly new” outbreak.

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