Governor defends data assumptions, examines policy agenda, and reflects on a post COVID-19 Arkansas

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 10,929 views 

On Jan. 19, 2020, Gov. Asa Hutchinson began to assume the worst. That was the day a 35-year old Washington state resident was identified as having COVID-19 – the first U.S. coronavirus patient.

“Like many Americans, when I first saw that this hit in China, I thought that it would probably be confined there,” Hutchinson said in an exclusive Talk Business & Politics interview which aired statewide Sunday (April 5).

“Then when I saw that we canceled flights, I knew that this is getting very serious because I was at Homeland Security during the SARS episode and we did not cancel flights during that time. We managed them totally different and I’m thinking this must be highly contagious in order to take that extra measure. That’s when I became concerned and watchful about it,” he said. “When it hit Washington state, of course, I knew that it would eventually spread. You did not know at that point the extent of it, but we really started our planning at that point as to what steps would you need to take.”

Arkansas did not report its first case until March 11, so Hutchinson and his public health team, led by Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith, had nearly two months to begin state preparations.

Hutchinson says it’s a good question to ask who or what is to blame for the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world, but suggested it’s premature to point fingers.

“I don’t think it’s the right time to be in the blame game. I’m in the mitigation mode and the emergency mode of dealing with this crisis. Whenever you look at a pandemic that we’ve had them periodically in our history and we’ve always, where it comes from really doesn’t make that much difference,” he said.

He does lay some blame at China’s feet for not being more transparent or accurate with initial information. When asked about President Donald Trump’s early rhetoric downplaying the coronavirus and its potential impact, Hutchinson cautiously answered.

“Whenever you look at the president’s comments, I mean, he reflects his optimism. Sure, he said that he thought we’d be done by Easter. He hoped that it wouldn’t be there. He was trying to make sure people were pumped up and continued to encourage the economy,” Hutchinson said. “Those statements in retrospect do not look like they’re long-lasting but my goodness, he’s trying to give hope. Now, you’ve got to give honest hope and a realistic expectations and certainly I think he’s learned with his health team that that’s how he’s got to communicate to America. And he’s been very frank with us in the last couple of weeks, letting us know exactly the trauma that’s ahead for America.”

Hutchinson has resisted a shelter-in-place order, although a majority of states have done so. He cites Arkansas’ testing data, which he contends shows COVID-19 cases below projections. He says if he’s told by state experts to put a shelter-in-place order in effect, he will.

“We will listen to our public health experts and if at any time they tell me we have to have a shelter-in-place order, it’s done. We work together on this and we’re looking at the data, we’re looking at the science,” he said.

To date, Arkansas has conducted approximately 10,000 tests and with over 700 positive cases identified, that’s about a 7% infection rate. Out of 3 million in state population, the number of completed tests equals about three-tenths of one percent. Hutchinson maintains it’s still a strong sample size.

“You sample this 3 million people in the state of Arkansas by polling 400 or 800 and you consider that a scientific sample of a state,” he said in reference to political polling. “We’ve pulled over 10,000 that we have a sample of and so yes, statistically it is very, very helpful, particularly whenever we’ve covered every aspect of the state.”

“You also have to compare it with where we are with the other states and every state is struggling with the number of tests that are out there. And so our numbers are still comparable to other states that are struggling with testing as well. So we’re doing as well on testing and we’re beating the curve in terms of our cases,” Hutchinson said.

When asked to extrapolate the 7% infection rate against the state’s total population, which would mean over 200,000 Arkansans could be symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, Hutchinson said he doesn’t think there are that many cases.

“It’s not true that you have that number of cases because if you take the national percentage of hospitalization, like in New York, it’s about 12% of the cases that are hospitalized. Our hospitals right now would be over-run with COVID patients and we have less than a hundred. And so that’s the kind of information that we have to have, the data we have to have to make good decisions,” he said.

In his daily press briefings, he frequently points to a red line of confirmed cases that trends below a blue line of projections. If the red line were to overtake the blue line, Hutchinson said he would get more aggressive with measures.

“If that red line goes above the blue line, that means that we’re not meeting the projections. We’re not beating the curve. We have to take stronger measures. That’s exactly the trigger point that I’m looking at but that’s not where we are,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is consuming much of Hutchinson’s time and that means there are policy initiatives he’s not been able to aggressively pursue. He notes that there won’t be money or time to expand the state’s crisis stabilization units. Future tax cuts are going to be “more challenging.” And this November’s highway program – making permanent a half-cent sales tax for roads – will need more focus.

“The highway program, I think it’s still widely supported in Arkansas [for] Issue One. I expect that to hopefully pass on the ballot in November because we’ll probably not only need that investment in infrastructure more than ever, but also the boost to the economy in terms of putting money out there for creating jobs at that point.”

On Wednesday, April 8, Arkansas lawmakers return to the capital city for a mandatory fiscal session. As they did in the recent special session, legislators are expected to practice many social distancing guidelines by maintaining their proximity to each other and utilizing technology to vote by proxy or participate in hearings.

Hutchinson said that for state and federal government leaders to meet in person needs to remain a foundation of our democracy.

“I hope that in our country, that’s one thing I hope we don’t do by online and that is our representative form of government that we stay in our states and we just electronically vote in Washington. There’s something very important about the speech and debate clause in the Constitution that I have a high regard for and there’s nothing that beats face-to-face discussion of important issues,” he said. “So I hope that this is a temporary issue and they’re making every accommodation during this time, but we have to have a budget. The Constitution requires it and they’re taking precautions. So, we’re going to be very careful because it’s our lives, it’s our families’ lives, and the public’s lives – It’s the state.”

The governor has proposed a reduction of more than $200 million from his original $5.893 billion balanced budget that he submitted March 4. He said he’s confident the $200 million figure will be adequate although he can revise the forecast downward if new data suggest a harder hit to the economy than expected.

“I have confidence in our projections. Our economic forecasting, of course, a part of the reason it’s only that amount of money is because we’re shifting some of the income tax revenue from this fiscal year into the next fiscal year. So that’s somewhat of an offset,” he said. “There’s also a huge amount of unpredictability. It could go south and be worse and we’ll have to adjust the revenue forecast again. I don’t think so, I think this is a good forecast to have but we’re going to have to wait and see how long this emergency goes on and then how long it takes our economy to recover from it.”

The peak of the coronavirus impact in Arkansas is far from anyone’s projections. Optimistically, April will be the worst month for Arkansas, but no one can know for sure. Hutchinson is realistic it will get worse before it gets better.

“Our numbers are going to go up even though we beat the curve and we reduce the height of the peak of the numbers that we have in Arkansas, they are going to go up. We’re going to have more hospitalizations, we’ll have some more deaths. And how long it last is undetermined at this point,” he said. “Obviously, we hope that April will be, will end the peak and that will start going down after that and start the recovery. That’s what we’re counting on. And that’s one of the reasons, I mean, how long can you stay cooped up in your house? For survival, you do it as long as you need to, but in terms of mental health, in terms of productivity, we hope that’s as short as it can be.”

He said there will be some positives that come out of the worst of this health care and economic nightmare.

“I think it’s caused us to rethink healthcare. Obviously, telemedicine is going to be more permanently with us and expanded as a result of what we can see, we can do through telehealth in this emergency circumstance. So that’ll change. I think the physical structure of hospitals and clinics will change to a certain extent because people now, rather than waiting in a waiting room, even if you don’t have a virus circumstance, you can wait in other places and come in at a right time. So I think a lot of things on how we deliver services will have a second look,” Hutchinson said.

“I think education as well. Do we do need this many buildings in higher education? If we can switch this readily and quickly to online formats, should we do more in that kind of format and reduce the expensive investment in buildings on college campuses? There’s a lot of questions that will be asked like that and I think we’ll see what changes can be made that are good,” he said.

“Some changes, I hope, are very temporary. And that is the social distancing. We’re in the South, we’re compassionate people. We believe in the human touch and that’s the hard, hard thing that we’re dealing with now,” he said.

You can watch Hutchinson’s full Talk Business & Politics interview in the video below.