State partners with Baptist Health on COVID testing; Walton says tourism industry ‘hardest hit’

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 900 views 

Baptist Health CEO Troy Wells

The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) is partnering with Little Rock-based Baptist Health to boost COVID-19 testing capacity by 20%. It’s an effort to “control our own destiny” with respect to testing, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday (Sept. 9).

Gov. Hutchinson said the ADH lab has grown capacity from being able to do about 20 tests a day when the pandemic hit Arkansas in March, to now performing up to 3,000 tests a day. However, that capacity increase is not enough if the state wants to depend less on commercial labs, which often delays turnaround time on test results, Gov. Hutchinson said.

A new testing machine ordered by the ADH will be at Baptist Health, with hospital staff operating the machine 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Baptist Health CEO Troy Wells. He said combining the “collective resources” of the hospital with ADH gives the state more flexibility to meet testing demand. He said the hospital has had to send up to 1,000 tests a day to commercial labs, which does not benefit the hospital or the state’s desire for more timely results. The new machine should be operational in early October.

“This piece of equipment runs over 1,000 tests a day so this really will add some needed capacity to our in-state testing,” Wells said.

Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero said the partnership with Baptist not only reduces the need to send tests to out-of-state labs, but helps the state better work with nursing homes and other critical areas on mandated testing.

Also speaking Wednesday was Steuart Walton, a grandson of Walmart Inc. founders Helen and Sam Walton and chairman of the governor’s Economic Recovery Task Force. He said the task force, which met earlier in the day, heard Mervin Jebaraj, an economist and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, explain how the federal stimulus checks and jobless benefit expansion had a significant positive impact on keeping Arkansas’ economy moving during the summer.

Congress is working on another stimulus package, but it is not expected to be as robust as the first plan, which included $600 a week in added jobless benefits. Those benefits expired at the end of July, but an executive order from President Donald Trump is using Federal Emergency Management Agency funds for a $300 a week added jobless benefit. That benefit has yet to begin in Arkansas.

Walton also said Jebaraj told the task force that when COVID case numbers rise, business activity slows, which Walton said shows containing the virus is “inextricably linked” to economic recovery in the state.

“We just see, in particular, the leisure and hospitality segments, as well as in-store retail in the small business arena as being those particularly hardest hit,” Walton said, adding that restaurant revenue was down about 35% in August compared with August 2019 figures.

Walton said the task force is set to provide an updated economic report to Gov. Hutchinson on Thursday.

Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 66,406 on Wednesday, up from 66,021 on Tuesday, with 5,208 test results from the previous 24 hours. Of the 385 new cases, 12 were from correctional facilities. There are 5,558 active cases. There were 699 antigen tests in the previous 24 hours with 114 positive results.

The number of deaths rose from 917 to 928. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 411 on Wednesday, up from 409 on Tuesday. There are 82 patients on ventilators, down from 84 on Tuesday. There are 59,920 cumulative recovered cases.

The top five counties with new known cases were: Washington (42), Craighead (32), Pulaski (31), Benton (24), and Jefferson (23). The counties accounted for 40.8% of the 373 new community cases.

As of Wednesday at 1 p.m., there were 6,336,856 U.S. cases and 190,065 deaths. Globally, there were 27,647,793 cases and 899,097 deaths.