Gov. Asa Hutchinson is asking for $22 million in federal funds set aside for pandemic response to hire an additional 350 contact tracers needed as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise. Almost 700 new cases were reported Wednesday (June 24).
The governor said Wednesday he has “set in motion” the steps to get money approved through the CARES Steering Committee and the Arkansas Legislative Council. The money comes from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved by Congress to provide aid to individuals, businesses and state and local governments in response to the pandemic.
The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) has more than 200 contact tracers as employees, and plans to have 350 more tracers active by mid-July through a third-party provider. Gov. Hutchinson said he is not sure when the other 350 will be on the ground.
“Whenever you have this level of new cases, that challenges the resources on our contact tracing, which is a fundamental part of our strategy. We have to be able to do that effectively. We have to be able to put the resources into the contact tracing, the testing and the isolation,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said the initial request for 350 was when state officials expected 1,000 active cases, but the state now has more than 5,500 active cases. He said the most recent data shows about 2.8 other persons connected to each active case, meaning almost three people per active case must quarantine.
“We’ve become very efficient in what we are doing, but we need more. So that’s (additional 350) going to help us,” Smith said.
Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 17,375 on Wednesday, up from 16,678 on Tuesday. Of the 697 new cases, 43 were from correctional facilities, but 168 were from Malvern (Hot Spring County) are likely tied to the Ouachita River Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, according to Smith. There are 5,567 active cases. The number of deaths rose from 237 to 240. The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 267 on Wednesday, up from 248 on Tuesday. There are 58 patients on ventilators, up from 57 on Tuesday. Of the known cases since March 11, 11,568 have recovered.
Hot Spring County had the most new cases with 168, which as noted are likely from the prison unit in Malvern. Of the estimated 486 new community cases, 30% came from Benton (67) and Washington (79) counties. Pulaski County had 51 cases and Sebastian County reported 40 cases, the largest one-day increase for the most populated county in the Fort Smith metro.
As of Wednesday at 1 p.m., there were 2,348,956 U.S. cases and 121,279 deaths. Globally, there were 9,295,365 cases and 478,289 deaths.
Gov. Hutchinson also set a goal of 180,000 tests for July. The June goal was 120,000, which was exceeded on June 23. The governor said the July testing will result in 6% of the state’s population being tested, which he said is necessary for efforts to contain the virus.
“But you also see new areas of challenge in various parts of the state. Sebastian County has been having an increase as well as Crawford County, I believe it was, yesterday. So those are areas that we have to watch as well,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
Smith called the July goal a “floor,” and predicted the state would do more than 180,000 tests in the month.
The governor was also asked about the move by state officials in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York to issue a 14-day quarantine for anyone from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, Utah and Texas.
“Obviously we’ve got work to do in the state and we’re going to do the work to reduce the spread,” he said.