Arkansas sheriffs asked to ‘utilize’ not ignore mask mandate; city-level data now available

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,444 views 

Friday was the last day Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith will be part of the daily COVID briefing. He is moving on to his new job as deputy director for Public Health Service and Implementation Science with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Smith has been the state’s health director since 2013.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday (July 17) he defers to the priorities of local law enforcement, but hopes county sheriffs will not choose to not enforce the statewide mask mandate but “utilize” it to protect the health of their communities.

The governor on Thursday issued a statewide mandate requiring the use of a face mask, citing the rising number of COVID-19 cases and input from healthcare workers, legislators and others who said it is necessary to address the spread of the virus. The mandate will become effective July 20.

Polk County Sheriff Scott Sawyer noted on his Facebook page his department would not enforce the mandate.

“I have neither the time, the personnel, or [in my opinion] the right to write tickets to anyone for not wearing a mask. I value our individual freedoms and will fight to protect our rights. I have worn a mask in stores and public indoor gatherings for the last three months. This is a choice I made for myself and my family. I can not and will not make that choice for you,” Sawyer wrote.

When asked about potential non-compliance from local law enforcement agencies, Gov. Hutchinson said he was planning to speak Friday afternoon to the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association and discuss why the mandate is “important from a public health standpoint.”

“We would like to see this utilization of our law enforcement partners for education. As the executive order provides, there is not any enforcement provision that allows any kind of imprisonment,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “But all of these decisions in terms of enforcement are subject to local priorities. That is a prerogative of the sheriff. That is a prerogative of the local police department to set their enforcement priorities. And so, I defer to them on that, but it is an option they can utilize to educate, to enforce, and to make sure we all stay healthy in our communities,”

The governor also acknowledged that some legislators were opposed to the mandate, but said he’s received “a lot of support for the executive order” from Arkansas’ legislators.

Gov. Hutchinson also said former U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., had informed him that his father, David Pryor, former Arkansas governor and member of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, was released from the hospital. It was reported July 13 that the elder Pryor, 83, and his wife Barbara tested positive for COVID-19. Barbara remained at home and was not hospitalized.

“That’s a matter of great joy that we see that progress in his health condition and that he has been released. And I know that will be good news for all Arkansans,” Gov. Hutchinson said.

Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 31,762 on Friday, up from 31,114 on Thursday. Of the 648 new cases, 39 were from correctional facilities. There are 6,633 active cases. The number of deaths rose from 341 to 353, with five deaths reported from previous periods and not being within the prior 24 hours. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 464 on Friday, down from 470 on Thursday. There are 97 patients on ventilators, down from 101 on Thursday. Of the known cases since March 11, 24,776 have recovered.

The top five counties for new infections were Pulaski (68), Washington (44), Craighead (32), Pope (30), and Benton (29). The five counties accounted for 33.3% of 609 new community cases reported Friday.

As of Friday at 1 p.m., there were 3,606,927 U.S. cases and 138,784 deaths. Globally, there were 13,888,874 cases and 592,719 deaths.

Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said Friday the state is making progress but continues to struggle with adequate and timely testing, and contact tracing.

“We’re not where we want to be in terms of testing and contact tracing, but we are expanding our capacity,” Smith said.

Friday was the last day Smith will be part of the daily COVID-19 briefing. He is moving on to his new job as deputy director for Public Health Service and Implementation Science with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Smith has been the state’s health director since 2013.

The governor also announced Friday that the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) will begin to provide city-level data on COVID cases. He thanked ACHI President and CEO Dr. Joe Thompson for taking on the data effort, saying it will help officials have a wider perspective on the reach of the virus.

“It’s not always the Fayettevilles or Little Rocks of the world, it is the Higdons and Hinesville and Danville and Belleville and DeQueen that are some of the top cities in terms of percent of their population that have tested posted for COVID, which obviously indicates that we have to make sure that we’re mindful, not just in the urban area but the rural areas as well as, to the potential of this spread,” Gov. Hutchinson said.

Thompson said there are about 600 cities now on the list, with the list updated on a weekly basis. He also said they are working to in the near future to add the number of active cases in each city. He also said ACHI will not provide data on cities with fewer than 10 cases because of patient privacy reasons. (Link here for the ACHI city data.)

“When reports come out at the county level, a small-town mayor doesn’t have the power to be able to say, ‘We have it in our town,’” Thompson said. “This is, I think, valuable information for those local mayors, those local elected officials and others.”