The daily news briefing for the Arkansas response to the COVID-19 pandemic was not hosted by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday, instead being led by Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith, who explained how the Department of Health was working with businesses.

The governor, who normally leads the daily presentation, was in Washington D.C. Wednesday. He announced Monday the meeting there was to meet with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence regarding Arkansas’s response to the pandemic.

Smith was joined by State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha and Medical Director for Infectious Disease Dr. Naveen Patil,

The state currently had 5,003 cases as of Wednesday afternoon, up 80 from Tuesday. Of these, 1,044 are active with 85 in nursing homes, 315 in prison facilities and 644 in the community, Smith said.

Hospitals currently hold 79 COVID-19 patients, up one from Tuesday, with 16 on ventilators, up two from Tuesday. Five people have died since Tuesday, bringing that total to 107. Four of the five deaths recorded since Tuesday were from nursing homes.

On Wednesday, 3,852 had recovered, up 113 since Tuesday. Smith pointed out this means more people recovered than were recorded as infected since Tuesday.

Testing recorded 4,396 since Tuesday, a single-day record Smith said, with a 1.9 percent positivity rate. This marks, Smith said, 44,240 tests for May, putting the state on track to meet the goal of 60,000 tests, or 2 percent of the state population, set for May.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 95,010 have been tested.

“Safe worksites are essential for our economy,” Smith said, explaining that this means not just a safe place for workers, but for customers in order to manage disease spread. His department has been working with worksites in order to assure public safety while allowing businesses to remain in operation, he said.

Smith introduced Dillaha as the person who oversees the Department of Health’s interaction with worksites, and she explained the process when a worker tests positive.

It begins with someone who has symptoms and tests positive, she said. Then the positive result is sent to the Department of Health. Once that is known, the patient is contacted by a nurse from the department, who then begins the process of contact tracing.

Contact tracing begins with tracing back two days before the patient began showing symptoms, and anyone who has been in contact with the patient. Those people are contacted and asked to self-quarantine by the department, Dillaha said.

Dillaha acknowledged that those in critical infrastructure roles were permitted to continue work, provided they are able to do so with minimal contact and while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).

Smith, responding to a question, said those in critical tasks were usually assigned working with those who have also tested positive for COVID-19. In an earlier press briefing Smith has said this was the policy for prison officers.

Dillaha said a secondary role is to work with worksites in developing plans and policies which would prevent disease spread. One example of this was putting up shields between workers who otherwise work closely together, and encouraging the employer to have policies so when an employee is sick they do not feel compelled to work.

“Our goal is to keep the businesses open,” Dillaha said.

Patil heads the group tasked with oversight of congregate settings, such as nursing homes, human development centers and prisons, Smith said in introducing him.

Arkansas has an advantage, Patil said, because it had put programs and teams in place after receiving funding for Ebola response and acting from the threat of that disease. This meant the team and procedures, including training and outreach, were already in place when the COVID-19 outbreak was first identified in Arkansas, he said.

Patil thanked members of his team who were, in the early days of the outbreak arriving early to gather test kits, traveling to nursing homes, then returning late to submit the test kits for processing. This process was repeated for weeks and “thousands and thousands of tests,” he said.

Patil reminded people it was important to maintain social distancing, and to wear a mask when that was not possible, as well as regular hand washing.

Smith, in response to a question, said the announcement about summer camps and summer teams sports could be expected Thursday.

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