Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he's considering a regional approach to further opening the state's economy as new coronavirus cases continue to surge in Northwest Arkansas while remaining flat in some areas of the state.
He spoke as the number of virus cases in the state's official tally rose by 358, an increase that included the second-highest single-day rise in positive cases among the nonincarcerated population.
"I was on a call today with businesspeople," Hutchinson said. "'They said, 'How can we get to Phase 2? When are we going to get to Phase 2?'
"Well, first of all, we're all opened up, but we do have a desire to lift some of the restrictions, particularly in the restaurants that want to be able to do more business and to have an economic pattern that works for their industry."
The total case count increased to 8,425 while the state's virus death toll, as tracked by the state Department of Health, rose by nine, to 151.
Health Secretary Nate Smith said some of the nine deaths happened within the past day or so, while others were nursing home residents whose deaths hadn't been immediately reported to the Health Department.
Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said two nursing home residents had died of the virus within the past day and four others died earlier.
"Nursing homes or hospitals report the deaths to us, but there are sometimes delays in this process," he said in an email.
Meanwhile, Arkansas Department of Corrections spokesman Cindy Murphy said an inmate who had been serving time at the Cummins Unit in Lincoln County died Thursday at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff while being treated for symptoms of covid-19.
"The inmate was in his seventies and serving a sentence for rape and second-degree sexual assault," she said in an email. She declined to release his name.
Health Department reports list 10 other prisoners as having died earlier in an outbreak that infected 963 inmates and 65 staff members at the prison.
One other state prison inmate, at the Randall L. Williams Unit in Pine Bluff, has also died of the virus.
STATE REGIONS DIFFER
In the past, Hutchinson has argued for a statewide approach to both imposing and lifting restrictions designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.Gallery: Daily COVID-19 Briefing
But on Thursday, he noted that at least 234 of the newest cases -- or more than 65% of the total -- were in the northwest public health region, made up of 19 counties.
Just two counties, Washington and Benton, accounted for 203 of the cases.
"While we stay together, I think you have to ask the question at some point, do we want to release one region to go to Phase 2?" Hutchinson said, referring to the next stage of loosened restrictions on businesses.
He showed graphs showing that, after spikes in April and May, new cases in the southeast region, which has 14 counties, had fallen to an average of 10 per day over the past week.
In the northwest region, by contrast, new cases have been rising since mid-May, reaching a seven-day average of 133 per day.
Cases in the central, northeast, and southwest regions also appeared to be increasing, which Hutchinson attributed at least in part to increased testing.
The average daily increase in cases over the past week was 31 in the southwest region, made up of 17 counties; 32 in the central region, which has seven counties; and 27 in the northeast region, which has 18 counties.
He said allowing some regions to enter Phase 2 before others is "a possibility."
"You want to look at, are we testing enough in southeast Arkansas?" Hutchinson said. "We want to look at that factor. We want to look at the trend line more carefully, but if it's a flat trend line, and they meet the criteria for going into Phase 2, it's hard to hold them back."
On the other hand, he said he had heard not long ago from people in Northwest Arkansas who wanted to move to Phase 2.
"Well, now they've gone up now, and once you go into a new phase, it's hard to roll it back, and so we want to be careful and make the right judgment on there, but that's something we're looking at," Hutchinson said.
He said he would continue studying the numbers and make a decision next week.
Arkansas entered its first phase of lifting restrictions on May 4. That included allowing restaurants to reopen for dine-in service on May 11, although they are limited to using a third of their indoor and outdoor seating capacity, among other restrictions.
The second phase would allow restaurants to use 66% of their seating capacity.
Montine McNulty, chief executive of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, said a regional approach to reopening "might be a good idea."
Some restaurants in the state still haven't reopened because they can't make a profit using just 33% of their dining space, she said.
Others that have reopened are losing money.
"I do know business needs to get open, there's no doubt about that," she said. "If [Hutchinson] can carve out areas that he thinks can be safe to open more, I'm all for it."
She hadn't proposed the idea to Hutchinson and didn't know of anyone else who had.
"I was actually kind of surprised like everybody else," she said.
The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce also didn't ask for a regional approach, but "we certainly don't have any objections to it," Randy Zook, the chamber's chief executive said.
"We would welcome any prudent, data-based decision that would allow increased flexibility for Arkansas businesses to operate safely and effectively for their customers," Zook said.
White House guidelines for lifting restrictions on businesses call for a state or region to have a "downward trajectory" of new cases or percentage of coronavirus tests that are positive over 14 days before moving from one phase to the next.
Hutchinson acknowledged that Arkansas' trajectory of cases "is clearly not downward statewide," but he said it is in some regions.
As for the percentage of tests that are positive, he said a consistently low level is "good enough for me."
He said that 5.2% -- 226 -- of the 4,350 tests that had been conducted the previous day were positive. The rate has been below 10% each day since May 16.
To ensure that enough tests are being conducted to measure the spread of the virus, the World Health Organization has recommended that governments wait until no more than 5% of tests performed come back positive over a two-week period before beginning to lift restrictions.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines put the number at 15% over two weeks before moving to Phase 2 and 10% before going to Phase 3.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. didn't respond to a request for comment that was submitted to his spokesman on whether the capital city is ready to move to that phase.
Scott in April said he had asked Hutchinson to impose a stay-at-home order on the city, but Hutchinson declined.
In the health emergency declaration that Hutchinson issued March 11, the day the state's first case was discovered, the Republican governor barred cities and counties from issuing "quarantine regulations of commerce or travel" except "by authority of the Secretary of Health."
"I've had discussions with a number of different mayors, and I think it points to the need to have a statewide policy," Hutchinson said at a news conference April 7. "If you have a business in one community, it impacts others."
Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis, which was allowed to reopen May 18 along with the state's other two casinos at one-third of their capacities, will offer blackjack and carnival games starting Monday, its parent company, Delaware North, announced Thursday.
Seating will be limited to four players to a table. Craps and roulette won't be offered yet.
Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs already offers blackjack, with three players per table, and craps with three players per side of each table.
Live roulette has not been opened at this time, said Oaklawn spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyt.
Saracen Casino Annex in Pine Bluff does not have live table games.
Arkansas' latest coronavirus cases included two positive test results of prison inmates that were announced earlier, but not added to the statewide count until Thursday, after information from laboratory reports was entered into a state database.
The remaining 356 cases were the second-largest number of non-inmate cases that have been added to the state's total in a single day. The largest was the 374 cases that were added Tuesday.
The new cases included at least 111 from Washington County, 92 from Benton County, 34 from Pulaski County, 12 from Crittenden County and 10 from Sevier County.
About half of the new cases were people with Spanish surnames, Smith said, indicating cases among the state's Hispanic population are continuing to increase.
The number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 fell by one, to 137. Forty-eight of those patients were in the northwest public health region, Smith said.
The number of patients who were on a ventilator increased by two, to 32.
The state's cases included 2,355 that were considered active, meaning the person had tested positive and had not yet recovered.
That included 95 nursing home residents and 43 prison inmates.
The lone virus death in Polk County that had been listed on a state website Wednesday was removed Thursday.
"That sometimes means the death has been reclassified to a different county or state, but I don't have specifics on this one right now and can't say for sure," Lesnick said in an email Thursday evening. He said he would look into it today.
Meanwhile, 10 deaths were added. Three were in Lawrence County, bringing its death toll from the virus to nine, and two were in Pulaski County, raising its count of virus deaths to 37.
As tracked on the website, the deaths also included the 11th in Union County, the eighth in Washington County, the third in Sharp County, and the second for both Pope and Yell counties.
The number of deaths of nursing home residents, as tracked on the website, rose to 63.
Two residents of nursing homes in Pulaski County are among those who have recently died.
Nina Kennedy, a 92-year-old resident at Woodland Hills Nursing and Rehabilitation in Jacksonville, died Wednesday at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, according to a Pulaski County coroner's report.
She was admitted to the hospital Saturday with a diagnosis of acute respiratory distress syndrome, metabolic encephalopathy and hypoxia, according to the report.
She tested positive for covid-19 on Monday.
"They called me Sunday morning and told me, 'If you want to see your mother, you need to come up here now,'" said Jerry Kennedy, her son. "I had to wear the suit and the glasses, everything, but I saw her for a little bit. I rubbed her on the forehead and she seemed to calm down a little bit. I told her it was OK and told her I loved her."
His mother improved the next day, but the doctor called Tuesday and said there was no hope, Jerry Kennedy said.
"I told them to put her on hospice, just take care of the pain," he said. "She died the next day."
The coroner's report lists the suspected cause of death as infectious disease.
It says she had a medical history of heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure.
Jerry Kennedy said he and his mother owned Fashion Cleaners in Jacksonville for 20 years before it closed.
"One time, when they were building the Walmart out here in Jacksonville, a guy called and asked to speak to her," Jerry Kennedy said. "We used to do personal laundry for people, like underwear and socks, stuff like that. I told him I was her son and asked to take a message. The guy wanted her to know that he was moving back to Tennessee and just wanted to tell her how much he appreciated what my mother did for him. It was personalized service. She cared."
She had three children, three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
She was widowed in 1973 and lost a son to homicide in 2014.
"She was my friend. That's what I'm going to remember most about her," her son said. "She was my friend."
He said his mother was a hard worker and liked to joke around. She also taught her children manners and respect.
"When I go into a store, I will hold a door open for a woman. She'll say, 'Thank you.' And I will tell them, 'That's the way my mother taught me,'" Jerry Kennedy said. "That's the type of woman she was."
A Health Department report on Thursday said 26 residents at the home had tested positive for the virus, including two who died.
Twenty-four workers at the home have also tested positive, according to the report.
Jerry Kennedy said his mother lived a good life for nearly 93 years, but he was upset that she died from covid-19.
"These people that are dying are real people. They're not just a statistic," Jerry Kennedy said. "My mother was the greatest woman ever born. People need to realize this virus is real. If it happens to someone down the street then it's no big deal to people. But if it happens to your mother, your brother or sister, then it's suddenly a big deal."
Nancy Burlee, 73, a resident of Encore Healthcare and Rehabilitation in Little Rock, died Wednesday at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, of covid-19, according to a Pulaski County coroner's report.
Burlee was admitted to the hospital Sunday with a fever and an active urinary tract infection and then diagnosed with covid-19.
Her medical history includes Alzheimer's disease, dementia with behavioral disturbances and hyperlipidemia, according to the coroner's report.
The nursing home has had one resident and one worker test positive for covid-19 and one death from the virus, according to the Health Department report.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline and Eric Besson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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