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story.lead_photo.caption Health Department Secretary Dr. Nate Smith (right) and Gov. Asa Hutchinson warned Tuesday that the spread of the coronavirus has just begun in Arkansas. More photos at arkansasonline.com/325governor/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

WEDNESDAY UPDATE:

The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state has increased to 236, the Arkansas Department of Health reported Wednesday morning.

EARLIER:

The first two deaths from the coronavirus in Arkansas were reported Tuesday as the number of cases in the state rose by 31, to 232.

The first person, a 59-year-old Sherwood man, died of the virus at 4 a.m. at Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock, according to the Pulaski County coroner's office.

Officials did not release the man's name but said he had a "significant medical history," including respiratory and cardiac problems.

At 8 a.m., a 91-year-old Cleburne County man died at Conway Regional Medical Center, a deputy Faulkner County coroner said.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

A member of Greers Ferry First Assembly of God identified the man as Bill Barton, one of dozens of members of the church who have tested positive over the past several days.

Announcing the deaths at a news conference, Gov. Asa Hutchinson warned that he expects the virus's toll in the state to increase.

"In dealing with and talking to my public health team, they use this language and said that what we're seeing is the calm before storm," Hutchinson said.

"I know that many people don't see this as a calm, but I think the way that is phrased makes us understand that we're still on the lower end of the slope as it goes up."

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZckWfYqVMM]

NO LOCKDOWN YET

By Tuesday evening, the virus, for the first time, had been reported in more than half of the state's 75 counties.

Cases were reported for the first time in Hempstead, Hot Spring and Pike counties, raising the total number of counties where people have tested positive to 38.

To stem the spread of the virus, Hutchinson has closed public schools in the state through April 17; indefinitely closed bars, fitness clubs, restaurant dining rooms and indoor entertainment venues; and recommended against holding gatherings of more than 10 people.

On Monday, the state Department of Health ordered the closure of all beauty parlors, barbershops, nail salons, massage therapy studios and tattoo parlors, starting at noon today.

Gallery: Governor Asa Hutchinson provides update regarding Arkansas's COVID-19 response

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/325governor/]

Many other states have taken similar steps, with some going as far as closing all nonessential businesses and ordering residents to stay home.

Asked about President Donald Trump saying at a Fox News virtual town hall meeting Tuesday that he would "love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter," which is April 12, Hutchinson said he hadn't heard the comments.

"The president gives hope, and he's speaking in a hopeful way, it sounds like," Hutchinson said. "I think we'd all love to see life back to normal by Easter.

"Do I think that's going to happen? As I've indicated before, we're still on the lower end of this upswing, and I think we're going to see more cases. We're going to see more disruption in the near future."

In fact, state Health Department Secretary Nate Smith said Arkansas' restrictions may need to be in place longer than those in some other states.

Arkansas' covid-19 cases by county



legend 0 25 50 75 100 Number of confirmed cases

Source: Arkansas Department of Health

[Interactive Arkansas map not showing up above? Click here to see it: arkansasonline.com/arvirus]

"Different parts of the country are at different phases in this epidemic," he said. "We were one of the last states to have cases."

And as a rural state, "we can expect to have probably more of a slow ramp-up and slow decline, which is actually good for us because that will mean our peak number of people who need hospitals, who need ventilators, will be lower than they would if it were in a big, big city."

Hutchinson said a blanket shelter-in-place order or statewide lockdown would be difficult to implement.

Given the length of time the virus is expected to be a concern, he said, he'd "like to keep our economy moving, even with this challenge."

"You have to ask a question, if you go further and close more, when do you open them up, when you know that we're going to be in this situation for eight to 12 weeks even before it starts peaking?" he said.

CASES INCREASE

The virus, which emerged late last year in Wuhan, China, spreads through respiratory droplets emitted when people sneeze or cough. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Those symptoms have been mild for many people. The elderly and people with chronic health conditions are considered most at risk of severe illness and complications.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Arkansas' cases included 11 children or teenagers up to age 18, 73 adults age 65 or older and 134 people age 19-64, Smith said.

Fourteen patients were hospitalized, up from nine a day earlier, and six were on ventilators, he said.

Ongoing coronavirus tests at three nursing homes where residents have been infected didn't turn up any new cases.

At Briarwood Nursing and Rehabilitation in Little Rock, 35 patients and eight staff members have tested positive.

The other homes are The Villages of General Baptist West in Pine Bluff, where two residents have tested positive, and Apple Creek Health and Rehab in Centerton, where one patient has a confirmed diagnosis.

At the time that Smith spoke Tuesday afternoon, the Health Department had reported a total of 218 cases in the state.

By Tuesday evening, it reported 14 more cases.

Pulaski County had the most, 64, up from 62 a day earlier.

It was followed by Cleburne County, where the number of cases increased by six, to 34, and Jefferson County, where the cases went up by one, to 22.

Faulkner had 17 cases Tuesday, an increase of seven, and Garland County had 11 cases, an increase of two.

Van Buren County had seven cases, up from a range of 1-4 on Monday.

Washington County had six cases, an increase of one from a day earlier.

Clark County, which had been listed as having seven cases Monday, was listed Tuesday as having six. Health Department spokesman Meg Mirivel said she didn't know why that number dropped.

In a few instances, she added, a case has been attributed to one county "before we discovered that [the patient] actually lived in another county."

All other counties with cases were listed as having less than five.

FUNERAL PRECAUTIONS

Hutchinson has recommended that businesses have employees work from home to the extent possible; screen staffs and visitors for symptoms; and "enforce social distancing," a concept that health officials have said includes staying at least 6 feet away from other people.

On Tuesday, a Health Department staff member wearing a surgical mask used an ear thermometer to check, for the first time, the temperatures of reporters attending the news conference where Hutchinson and Smith spoke.

The department began the screenings Monday for all visitors to the building, Mirivel said.

"We're trying to follow our own advice," she said.

The department also issued recommendations Tuesday for funerals, saying they should be limited to 10 people, and that the funeral home staffs and attendees should be screened for symptoms and possible exposure to infected people.

Funeral home workers "should take precautions to avoid contact with potentially infectious body fluids," the department said in its guidelines.

Smith said people may want to consider holding small family gatherings outdoors and plan larger services later, once the virus has run its course in the state.

"We need to think about ways that we can honor the lives of our loved ones in ways that doesn't increase the spread of covid-19," he said.

He also noted "increasing evidence" that smoking increases the chance of illness and death from the virus.

"For those who smoke, this is a good time to strongly consider quitting," he said.

SUPPLIES ARRIVE

To prepare for the expected influx of patients, the state has been trying to replenish its supply of protective medical gear, such as masks and gowns, and exploring options for increasing hospital space.

Early Tuesday, Hutchinson said, the state received its second shipment of protective medical gear from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Strategic National Stockpile, including 27,800 N95 respirator masks.

An order of 1 million more units of protective gear that the state ordered from an overseas supplier is scheduled to arrive this weekend, he said.

Once it does, the state's health care providers should have enough of the equipment to last 60 days at the rate they are using it now.

"Obviously you can see if the positive cases, the hospitalizations increase, then the consumption and the usage rate will rise, and that will last for a shorter period of time," he said.

Members of the media keep their distance from one another Tuesday at the state Health Department as Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other officials give an update on the coronavirus, including the first two people in the state to die from covid-19. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

A Section on 03/25/2020

Print Headline: State sees first covid-19 deaths

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