An emphasis on testing, both statewide and in nursing homes, was the focus of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Wednesday new briefing on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor was joined by Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith and Arkansas Health Care Association Executive Director Rachael Bunch and Secretary, Department of Human Services Cindy Gillespie.

Arkansas had 8,067 infections as of Wednesday afternoon, an increase of 249 since Tuesday. Six more people were hospitalized since Tuesday, for a total of 138, with 30 of them on ventilators, that number down one since Tuesday. As of Wednesday, 142 people in the state have died from the virus, up six from Tuesday.

In Arkansas, 5,717 people have recovered from the virus, increasing 150 since Tuesday.

Increasing case numbers appear to center in the northwest part of the state, Smith said, with 28 on the new cases in Washington County, 20 cases in Benton County and 23 case in Sevier County.

Outliers in the new case numbers were Pulaski County, with 33 new cases since Tuesday. Smith expressed concern with that number.

“We’re going to have to watch our numbers in Pulaski County,” Smith said.

Crittenden County, in east Arkansas has 18 new cases since Tuesday. The county had earlier been identified as a comparative hot spot in the state, which the governor has said was likely due to its proximity to the urban center of Memphis.

Hutchinson had earlier said that the state would not move toward Phase 2 reopenings, with fewer restrictions on social distancing, until infection and hospitalization numbers showed a favorable trend. The problem has been, the governor reiterated in Tuesday’s briefing, the regional nature of the virus’s travel in the state. Earlier in the pandemic, east Arkansas was a comparative hot spot and the northwest was relatively untouched; now the pandemic center for new cases has moved to the northwest while east Arkansas, save Crittenden County, is seeing a relative downturn in cases.

Testing, which provides a key statistic in formulating the state’s response, continues to be emphasized. In May the governor had set a goal of 60,000 tests, roughly 2 percent of the state’s population, which had been exceeded. For June a higher goal of 120,000 tests in the state has been set, which will include testing of ever nursing home and long-term care facility resident and staff members in the state, amounting to around 50,000 tests.

Hutchinson announced as part of this plan the state had contracted with commercial lab service LabCorp in order to expedite testing throughput. Testing expense, when it was not covered by insurance or Medicaid, would be covered via CARES Act funding, Hutchinson said.

A breakdown of the numbers was given, showing testing being given in nursing homes and palliative care facilities. The testing for nursing homes will encompass 16,000 to 18,000 residents and 20,000 to 22,000 staff members. Alternate living facilities would be 6,000 residents and 5,000 staff, and Department of Human Services facilities would be 5,000 residents and staff tested.

The testing would begin in nursing homes June 9-11, then moving over to Human Development centers June 15-17. Human Development Centers would amount to 3,000 staff, Gillespie said.

The amount of testing was “quite a logistical exercise,” Gillespie said.

Bunch referred to the nursing-home focused testing effort as “massive.”

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Bunch said.

The testing would take place using the less-invasive and easier-to-use nasal swab test, Bunch said.

Smith and Bunch both cited Arkansas’s relatively low rates of nursing home deaths and infections compared to the national average.

Of the 142 deaths currently recorded, nursing home residents account for 55 deaths, or 39 percent. Nursing home infections make up 5 percent of total cases, Smith said.

Compared to the national statistics, Arkansas has 23.6 infections per 1,000 residents, against a national average 62 infections per 1,000 residents. In deaths, Arkansas is ranked six per 1,000 against a national average of 27.5 in nursing homes, Bunch said.

One of the outcomes of nursing home testing would be facilities being reopened for visits, Hutchinson said. It would also allow the reopening of communal dining and similar activities in homes.

Smith said the reopening of nursing homes, hoping to take place after the testing data has been reviewed, would have restrictions, such as mandatory mask wear, screening of visitors, limiting visitor numbers and visits only in restricted, assigned areas.

Since Tuesday, Arkansas has recorded 3,872 tests, returning a 4.8 percent positivity rate. So far in June 7,717 tests have been given.

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