COVID-19 testing rate improves; new visitation rules issued for Arkansas parks

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 4,693 views 

State officials continue to be frustrated with the pace of COVID-19 testing, but reported on Wednesday (April 1) gains and new activity on that front, with one being a pilot project in Bentonville that provides testing exclusively for first responders and other healthcare workers.

COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 584 as of Wednesday afternoon, up from 523 on Tuesday. The number of deaths rose from eight to 10. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 56 on Wednesday, down from the 64 on Tuesday. As of Wednesday at 1 p.m., there were 199,092 U.S. cases and 4,361 deaths, with 1,139 of those in New York City. Globally, there were 905,279 cases and 45,371 deaths.

Of the 584 cases on Wednesday, 84 are among healthcare workers, 18 are age 18 or younger, 170 are age 65 or older and 396 are age 19 to 64.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during Wednesday’s press conference that Arkansas has partnered with Bentonville-based Walmart Inc. and Quest Laboratories on a drive-thru test facility in Bentonville for first responders and healthcare workers who “have a concern and believe they need to be tested.” He said the effort, part of a national pilot project for Walmart and the first in Arkansas, is a “significant step forward” for the state’s testing capability. He said the facility should be in operation early next week.

Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said increased testing capacity at the Arkansas Department of Health, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and private labs resulted in more than 800 tests conducted in the past 24 hours. He said that is not where the state needs to be, but the rate of testing is moving in the right direction.

He also said Roche Labs has sent more than 400 testing components to Arkansas for tests to be conducted in nursing homes. Indianapolis-based Roche announced March 16 it would send 800,000 test kits to “more than 30 hospital and reference laboratories in the U.S. that already have the required instrumentation in place and have the ability to implement high-volume testing immediately.”

Gov. Hutchinson said he talked Wednesday to Vice President Mike Pence about the state’s needs, including the possible need for ventilators. There were 25 COVID patients in Arkansas on ventilators as of Wednesday, up from 23 on Tuesday.

“He gave us confidence that when we need ventilators, we’re going to have ventilators,” Hutchinson said.

Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism, said the department developed new rules to ensure social distancing and other guidelines are being practiced at state tourism facilities. The rules were requested by Gov. Hutchinson in part to address the number of out-of-state visitors traveling from COVID-19 “hot spots” to state parks.

The biggest change is that parks will be open for day-use only, a move Hurst said has been made by 28 states. Other changes include facility gates being closed when parking lots are full, park rangers will be given more authority to “disperse gatherings” and issue citations for those who park illegally, and the department plans to move park rangers and other employees from less active areas to those where more control is needed.

She also said the state is closing Cedar Falls Trail at Petit Jean State Park, the East and West Summit trails at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, and the Fossil Flats Mountain Bike Trail and the Woody Plants Trail at Devil’s Den State Park. She said the decisions were based on online data from reservations, observations from park rangers, and best practices from other states.

“It is our desire to keep state parks open, but only where it is safe and manageable to do so. … This is a very fluid situation, but we are staying on top of the data, and the best practices across the country, and we will adjust as needed,” Hurst said.

Gov. Hutchinson said he asked Acting U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to close the Buffalo National River for an indefinite period. Officials in Newton County and other areas where the river runs have complained about large gatherings of mostly out-of-state visitors. Park rangers on one day reported that 60% of those on the river were from out of state, Gov. Hutchinson said.

Also on Wednesday, Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston said the department continues to address the “onslaught” of filings for jobless claims, which rose from about 1,000 a week to now around 30,000 a week. He said reassigned people within various agencies of the department have been reassigned to work the phone lines for jobless claims. He said the department also added additional capacity to the website to handle the demand.

Guidelines for new unemployment insurance for self-employed, contract workers and others in the gig economy have not yet been issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, Preston said. He urged those workers to be patient and he hopes to get that guidance this week.

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