We owe Gov. Asa Hutchinson our congratulations and sincere expression of appreciation for the masterful job he has done in handling the coronavirus pandemic in Arkansas. He has faced this major challenge head-on, and has displayed great leadership and wise choices in the decisions he has made, including his selection of the people he has surrounded himself with. The end result is that he has displayed a calm, confident, determined approach throughout the two-and-a-half months he has been battling COVID-19.
This has contributed greatly to the feeling of security and trust the people of Arkansas have toward him. His daily press conferences have reinforced their feelings because he has conducted them in a concise, professional manner, fielding the questions directed to him and ably passing off the others to Dr. Nate Smith, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health. At other press conferences, he has brought in other knowledgeable, very capable people, such as Dr. Cam Patterson, Chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, to address the questions posed to them by the press.
The first known case of COVID-19 in Arkansas was reported on March 11th of this year. The governor declared a public health emergency to facilitate and coordinate the state’s multi-agency response to the pandemic. He did not have a knee-jerk reaction to address the steps to be taken to combat the virus. He addressed the complexities involved in fighting a very dangerous virus, first protecting the people from a health standpoint, and then addressing the threatened effect on our businesses, where they could be closed down, creating a very heavy economic burden on their employees and the state of Arkansas. He did not issue directives immediately to close down businesses, but did it later when he determined that steps had to be taken to stop people from gathering in crowds that contributed to the spread of the virus through social contact, such as bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and health clubs.
He also limited the size of crowds at any location, which essentially closed churches, concerts, sporting events and many businesses because they attracted large crowds. His intent was to cause temporary closures for limited periods of time, which he committed to ease once the spread of COVID-19 was brought under control.
During this time, Asa also promoted social distancing, wearing of face masks, washing of hands, and staying at home as much as possible. It is strongly believed that these actions have played a major role in the success this state has experienced in controlling COVID-19, providing much better results than some states that employed more radical approaches in their efforts to stop the virus. The governor has achieved this success in spite of being blind-sided by a large number of people in our state prison system having the virus, as well as in the federal prison in St. Francis County, along with a significant number of people in nursing homes throughout the state of Arkansas, including patients and staff members, which caused dramatic increases in all of the various COVID-19 related statistics.
After absorbing these numbers initially, Arkansas slowed the growth of the coronavirus in Arkansas, with drops in the rate of infection, the number of people in our hospitals, the ones requiring ventilators and the ones dying.
Asa has instituted a very active testing program aimed at spotting the people who have the virus and getting them treatment and eliminating many others from consideration. He set a goal of 60,000 Arkansans to be tested in May and has surpassed that number. He has further set a goal of testing everybody in nursing homes, including residents and staff members, which will total more than 40,000 people, during June. This intensive testing, when combined with contact tracing, will help them identify prospective hot spots and enable them to have more effective treatment and prevention.
Recently, Gov. Hutchinson started moving Arkansas back to normal, which will be a new normal, by approving the opening of businesses that have been closed and bringing them back into the economy. He actively pursued getting both state and federal dollars to provide relief to businesses that had closed, or were operating on a limited basis, as well as employees who had lost their jobs as businesses closed. Businesses are reopening and employees are going back to work, but there is still a long way to go. Asa is convinced that there will be a second wave of the virus that will hit us before we escape its grasp and believes that we may be seeing that happening at present.
Numbers of new cases are rising, which drives other numbers up, so that could very well be happening. Others have suggested that there will be a second wave, but they are predicting it could happen in August or September.
Whatever is happening right now could very well be the beginning of that second wave in Arkansas, but we do not know that for sure. What we do know is that we do not know a lot of things about COVID-19. We do not know exactly how much exposure it takes to infect an individual. We do not know how many people secretly have the virus, but do not show it. We do not know for certain that once people have the virus, they are immune to it from that time forward, though evidence is accumulating to support that theory. Lastly, we know that there is no vaccine that will protect us from the coronavirus available on the market today. That is the only sure thing to eliminate this disease and that is where our hopes and prayers should be concentrated.
We do know that we as individuals must play a major role in what happens from now forward. We owe our governor and the many heroes on the front line who got us to where we are today, to use good judgment in our daily lives. If we ignore social distancing, if we do not wash our hands, or do not wear face masks, or congregate in places where we know we are placing ourselves at
risk, or if we decide not to stay at home when we know that we should, we could very well find ourselves in as bad or worse of a situation than we find ourselves in today, and that would be terribly unfair to those who have worked so hard to get us to this point.
Let’s pause and remember our strong feelings of appreciation we feel for Asa and his people for what they have done to get us to where we are today and not even think of doing those things that can cause us to slide backward to where we came from. We are blessed as a state to have Asa as our governor during these trying times, we have trusted and followed him to this point and we should follow him as he leads us into the new normal.
Editor’s note: Sheffield Nelson is a practicing attorney in Little Rock and currently serves on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees. He is a two-time GOP nominee for Arkansas Governor. The opinions expressed are those of the author.