No Arkansans have been infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus, but one person as of Friday (Feb. 28) was identified as meeting the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention criteria, and the state is coordinating testing with the CDC. (Updated: State officials later said the person did not test positive for COVID-19.)
Meanwhile, 10 recent travelers are undergoing home monitoring with daily check-ins by the Department of Health, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a press conference held Feb. 28. Hutchinson said the 10 travelers are not symptomatic but meet the CDC’s criteria. One other person was tested for the disease but was not infected.
Hutchinson made his first public comments about the state’s response to the disease shortly after a phone conversation with Vice President Mike Pence, whom President Trump has placed in charge of the national effort. He said Pence emphasized there are only 60 cases nationally and that the reported cases are declining in China, where the disease originated.
Hutchinson said he conveyed to Pence the importance of having state-level testing available rather than sending each case to the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta and waiting for the results. He said the state Department of Health has told him it expects to have that ability next week. He also told Pence that an adequate supply of personal protective equipment such as medical masks is needed. The masks are in short supply because they are sourced from China. He said Pence told him federal authorities are considering how to use emergency authority to accelerate manufacturing.
Hutchinson said he has directed his cabinet officials to develop contingency plans to respond to the disease.
The Arkansas Department of Health is the lead agency under the direction of Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith. Smith met with Trump and Cabinet officials earlier this week in Washington. Hutchinson said he had directed the department to activate an incident command center that is operational and is sending him reports. The Department of Health has the statutory authority to quarantine any patient who tests positive, he said.
He said the Department of Health will communicate updates about the disease with the public. The agency activated a call center on Jan. 30 with a toll-free number, (800) 803-7447. That number is primarily meant for public health officials. So far, it has received 62 calls.
“We have been ahead of the curve,” Hutchinson said. “We have the opportunity to be ahead of the curve here in Arkansas. Great health team, national leaders in infectious diseases that are on our team, so we’ve been methodically working through our contingency plans as well as already putting up our incident command center, responding to getting information out. I’ve been engaged in this from day one.”
Stephanie Williams, a senior deputy with the Department of Health, said the risk to the public is low and travelers who are being monitored for two weeks have been compliant with the department’s requests. The department is in constant communication with the CDC and has 74 health professionals monitoring the situation. She asked Arkansans to go to healthy.arkansas.gov to find updates on the disease. The website will offer guidance for particular groups. She said the department is investigating rumors to verify concerns.
Other state agencies are taking preparatory steps. The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management is prepared to activate an emergency operations center if needed. Hutchinson said the Department of Education is developing guidance to schools so that education can continue as events change. He noted that schools have been closed in Japan and Hong Kong.
The governor noted that he gained experience when he was an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 when the SARS outbreak occurred. However, there is still much that is unknown about the COVID-19 coronavirus. Hutchinson said citizens, meanwhile, should take the same precautions they would take regarding the flu: wash hands, use hand sanitizer, and don’t go to work if they are sick. Dr. Greg Bledsoe, the state’s surgeon general, said every family and community should have a preparedness plan, much as they would if they knew a snowstorm was coming. Bledsoe said that 80% of the cases so far have been mild, but the situation is evolving and policymakers here are learning from what is happening in other states and countries.
Hutchinson said the Trump administration has responded to the outbreak aggressively by restricting commercial air travel from China and by appointing Pence. He warned against politicizing the nation’s response to the disease. He said the economic impact on Arkansas so far has been “very minimal,” but the effects on the national economy will affect Arkansas. He warned Arkansans not to overreact.
“We go about our business,” he said. “We spend our money. We drive the economy, and we conduct businesses because there’s no confirmed cases in Arkansas, and it’s important that we go about our daily lives without fear.”