With daily COVID-19 cases topping 2,000 for the first time, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday (Nov. 13) announced a “winter task force” to focus on hospital resources and workers. Business restrictions and statewide school closings, however, are still opposed by Gov. Hutchinson.
Daily COVID new case counts have set three records in the past week, with the number of hospitalizations rising in Friday’s report to a new record of 826. Gov. Hutchinson also said the Arkansas Department of Health is reporting 2,312 new confirmed and probable cases, another record for new cases and the first time new daily cases topped 2,000 since the pandemic hit Arkansas in March.
COVID cases are up 15.3% in the first 13 days of November, or roughly 1,328 new cases a day.
Gov. Hutchinson said the task force will immediately look at the following four areas:
• Actions to better coordinate caseload statewide;
• Measures the state can take to help better support medical staff;
• Additional steps to ensure compliance with the statewide mask mandate; and
• Any measures to reduce the high number of cases and resultant burden on hospitals.
He also said the state will spend $1.6 million on a “marketing strategy” during the fall and winter focused on convincing people to follow health safety guidelines such as wearing a mask, socially distancing and washing hands. Gov. Hutchinson also said he is calling up 30 members of the Arkansas National Guard to help with contact tracing because the system is “overloaded again.”
Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero said it is the “public’s responsibility” to help control the spread of COVID and to take “personal care for others.”
“We are not bringing this under control because persons are not adhering to the three W’s. We need them to wash their hands, wear their mask, and watch their distances. If we do that, we can bring it under control,” Romero said.
The task force is not likely to issue business-restriction recommendations. Gov. Hutchinson said there is a “greater sense” that the challenge is getting people to comply with simple guidelines and not a need to return to business restrictions.
“I would certainly hope not,” Gov. Hutchinson said when asked if the task force may come back with a recommendation to pause parts or all of the economy for a few weeks or months. “I don’t expect that to be the result of this task force.”
He also said business owners need to do more to require customers to follow health safety guidelines. Gov. Hutchinson also said there is “no plan to change our commitment to school,” adding it is important for local schools to make decisions about how they provide instruction to students.
When asked what kind of advertising could convince those who still refuse to wear masks or refuse to accept the severity of the situation, Gov. Hutchinson said he hopes the ad campaign uses various messages to “penetrate” the different parts of the population.
“It’s hard to imagine anyone not being knowledgeable about the scientific basis for face coverings, but sometimes advertising can hit different ways, different messages that appeal to them. So I know our ad team is going to be very creative in it. Part of it will be a strictly Department of Health message. Others will [say], ‘If you want to keep the economy open, you’ve got to be able to wear a mask and prevent the spread of the virus,’” Gov. Hutchinson said.
Gov. Hutchinson said the task force will take action “periodically as needed” and he will not be waiting for a written report several weeks from now. The first virtual meeting of the task force is 8 a.m., Monday (Nov. 16)
“This is a fast-moving pandemic, and we’ve got to move fast,” he said.
Gov. Hutchinson will chair the task force, and Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe will serve as vice chair. In addition to Bledsoe, following are members of the winter task force.
Larry Shackelford, president and CEO of Washington Regional Medical Center
Chris Barber, president and CEO of St. Bernard’s Healthcare
Scott Street, CEO of Medical Center of South Arkansas
Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
Rachel Bunch, executive director of Arkansas Health Care Association
Bo Ryall, president and CEO of Arkansas Hospital Association
Troy Wells, president and CEO of Baptist Health
Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Hospital, Fort Smith
Major General Kendall Penn, Adjutant General, Arkansas National Guard
A.J. Gary, director of Arkansas Department of Emergency Management
Dr. José Romero, Secretary of Arkansas Department of Health
Dr. Jerrilyn Jones, Arkansas Department of Health
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, Arkansas Department of Health
Dr. Naveen Patil, Arkansas Department of Health
Dr. Keyur Vyas, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
Phillip Gilmore, CEO of Ashley County Medical Center
Dr. Steven Collier, CEO of ARcare
Ron Peterson, President and CEO of Baxter County Regional Medical Center