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Arkansas lawmakers split on state's virus planning

Unsure of what’s in place, three panel members say by Michael R. Wickline | March 12, 2020 at 6:48 a.m.
Dr. Robert Redfield (left), director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Nathaniel Smith (right), secretary for the Arkansas Department of Health, are shown in this file photo.

Three state lawmakers on Wednesday questioned whether state and local officials are prepared for a potential outbreak of the coronavirus in Arkansas, but two other lawmakers defended the planning efforts of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's administration.

During the Joint Budget Committee's hearing on the state Department of Public Safety's proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, said, "At least I would feel more comfortable if we knew there was some written pandemic plan, how this was all going to play out.

"Hopefully, we won't ever have to use it," he said.

"But we are seeing what's happening sort of around the nation, where folks are being much more aggressive and quarantining and canceling events," Bond said. "Hopefully, that won't happen here. But I think we would all feel more comfortable if there was something that we could look at as a Legislature and say, 'OK, Arkansas is prepared,' because, if something goes haywire, we allegedly are the oversight."

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In response, Public Safety Secretary Jami Cook said, "I will absolutely get that to you."

"We are prepared," she said. The Department of Public Safety consists of the law enforcement, law enforcement support and emergency management divisions.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said, "We are ahead of the game because we are paying attention and coordinating closely with the Trump administration and with the other states and learning from what they are dealing with."

Irvin is chairwoman of the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

"I just want to remind folks that Dr. Nathaniel Smith, who is the [secretary] of the Arkansas Department of Health, is a world-class physician that has seen these types of situations in person in other countries," she said. "He is very, very experienced with this level of epidemic that we are dealing with in the country, so he is constantly in contact with the CDC and all officials across the country and the world, quite frankly."

The CDC is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Irvin said Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe "is very engaged in this as well."

The Joint Budget Committee's discussion came before and during Hutchinson's news conference at which he confirmed the state's first presumptive positive case of coronavirus, in Pine Bluff.

Hutchinson said the Health Department has been well prepared to respond to the virus for months.

During the committee's meeting, state Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, pressed Cook.

"What are we doing to make sure that our first responders have the gear that is necessary, should we be unfortunate enough to have that virus hit the state?" Chesterfield asked.

"We are working very closely with local and county law enforcement and passing on information from the Department of Health for guidance for our first responders," including firefighters, law enforcement officials and even dispatchers, Cook said.

The Arkansas State Police has "inventoried our personal protection equipment in the department and [the director] Col. [William] Bryant feels very comfortable that we are prepared to outfit our troopers if the case arises, if the need arises," she said.

"It's the same equipment that we have used, in like a meth lab, to protect our troopers from the chemicals of those situations, and Dr. Smith feels that's adequate for this situation," Cook said. "We are hoping for the best, but we're preparing for the worst."

Bond said he's also worried about "our county officials, county jail personnel, all having the protective gear to handle our county jails.

"We have people coming in and out all the time and, [if] we have somebody who shows up with the virus, what I'm still not clear about is, who is coordinating that effort to make sure that we have all the protective gear out there, that we have the testing plan?"

Cook said the Health Department "is the lead on this event, so they are providing the information and we are sharing all that information with the sheriffs and the chiefs and [county emergency management] coordinators."

Bond also asked: "Who is the head of the pandemic team? Do we have a pandemic team? Are they meeting? I just don't have a level of comfort as the legislative oversight on this issue," he said. "If someone can please bring me up to speed, I would feel better about it."

Cook said the Health Department is leading the response and the Public Safety Department also is working with various agencies and the governor's office.

The state's homeland security advisory executive committee, which includes the state's 15 department secretaries and officials of other entities, has been convened to stay current on the issue, she said.

"I've been sharing information with the sheriffs through the [Association of Arkansas Counties] and [with] the chiefs through the Arkansas Chiefs of Police, so we've urged them to do that inventory of their personal [protective equipment]," she said.

Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, said he's requested a copy of the state's pandemic plan and plans to distribute copies to members of the House and Senate public health committees.

"It's a very detailed plan, a very big plan, so the only reason I don't have it now is because it's hard to send by email, so they're trying to get that to us so we can get it to our members so that they know what the plan is and some of the basic things," he said.

"We as the public health joint committee are looking at it to see if there are things that we get feedback from Arkansans that we think that needs to be changed," said Ladyman, who is chairman of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Afterward, Health Department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said the plan is about 150 pages.

Ladyman said a health official has sent out a list of the needed personal protection equipment to all hospitals and emergency medical services.

"I would ask that all representatives and senators get involved in this and check at your local level to see if those EMS folks have received this information and are they responding to that," he said. "But we as a legislative body we need to be informed, and from the questions I am hearing here, we're not. Some of us are not, and we need to talk to our local EMS because this will be addressed through the hospitals and local EMS."

Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, asked Cook who in the Public Safety Department is the lead person who understands the needs of ambulance drivers and first responders.

"I think we are disoriented," he said. "I'm not sure we understand the complications that we are going to face, so who is in charge?"

Cook said Division of Emergency Management Director A.J. Gary oversees all the planning in the emergency operations center, and the state police is there to coordinate with all the emergency support functions.

"I'm not trying to be difficult," Wooten said. "But I am telling you, if this goes like it perhaps can, we are going to be in a bind and a plan to me is half the battle."

Bryant, state police director, said, "We can't just flip the switch overnight and say we are 100% ready, but our full attention is on this at this time.

"Communication has been outstanding. We held a meeting at the state police headquarters right after this, when it first broke and say, 'Hey, what's the best way to attack this?' We are doing the best. Are we 100% foolproof? No. But we are heading in that direction. ... If you have first responders, they will the first ones to come up with this type of thing. There are hearty discussions going on, and we'll be our best at state police to be prepared to assist our agencies because by statute we are an assist agency for all of law enforcement, so we will step up to the challenge," he said.

Metro on 03/12/2020

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