Governor declares new health emergency; calls special session to address changes for local control

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 2,145 views 

With a rising surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday (July 29) he has established a new 60-day public health emergency and will call a special session for next week to ask Arkansas lawmakers to change restrictions on local control that were changed under Act 1002.

The governor reported that 2,843 new COVID-19 cases had been recorded in the past 24 hours.

“I’m re-instating a public health emergency,” Hutchinson declared through proclamation noting the stress that has been placed on the state’s healthcare resources, which have been taxed by a weeks-long surge in caseloads. He said his declaration would allow for an easing of standards to help relieve healthcare personnel and resources during the current COVID-19 crisis caused by the Delta variant.

“I have spoken to the White House today and I’ve asked for assistance at the federal level … they are sending a surge response team and we welcome that level of expertise,” he said.

The governor noted at the end of May, when the previous emergency order ended, active cases in Arkansas stood at 1,938 and hospitalizations included 194 patients. As of July 27, there were 15,491 active cases and 1,025 hospitalizations.

The declaration of a new pandemic emergency must be reviewed by the Arkansas legislature and voted upon to remain in place. That’s the result of a new law passed during the 2021 regular session earlier this year. Hutchinson’s new emergency declaration gives the state Department of Emergency Management authority to enact emergency health care staffing as well as the Department of Health to look for loosening rules or orders that could accelerate licensure of health care professionals.

In calling lawmakers into a special session next week, Hutchinson said he would ask for a very specific change to Act 1002, which prohibits statewide or local mandatory face-covering requirements. Citing his concerns that children under the age of 12 do not now qualify for any vaccines, Hutchinson said he is worried about their vulnerability heading back to school in August. He said those 12 and over have access to a vaccine and can be protected by the vaccine options that exist.

“Everyone else is a decision that can be made with parents and others,” he said. “Those 12 and under can’t get vaccinated.”

Hutchinson wants legislators to have the ability to impose mask mandates in schools with children under 12 if they choose. He said “local control” is a conservative principle, some school leaders are calling for flexibility, and he thinks the legislature will see the wisdom in protecting “the most vulnerable.”

“I’m particularly concerned about those in that age category,” he said in reference to school-age children under 12. Hutchinson did not know if there is a majority of legislative support for the change. He said legislative leaders have called it “a heavy lift.”

Hutchinson, who said he did not foresee a delay to the start of the school year, emphasized he is not seeking a change to the mask mandate law for higher education or businesses.

“This is all about the children and their health,” he said.