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The panel appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to recommend the best use of $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds on Wednesday endorsed a $58 million request from the state Department of Health, largely for laboratory testing and supplies and contact tracing.

It also backed a $3.3 million request from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for testing covid-19 antibodies.

So far, slightly more than $400 million of the federal funds have been allocated, said Elizabeth Smith, chairwoman of the Arkansas Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Steering Committee and secretary of the state Department of Inspector General.

The committee includes eight of the governor's department heads and a governor's aide, three senators and three representatives.

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The Department of Health's request included $30.5 million for laboratory testing equipment; $22.4 million for contact tracing; $3.5 million for information technology; $923,584 to support a quarantine facility for people without safe housing; $360,994 for ambulance coordination and to support a personal protective equipment decontamination unit; and $210,440 in miscellaneous expenses.

Laboratory testing is critical for the covid-19 response in Arkansas, Health Secretary Nate Smith said in a memo to Elizabeth Smith.

"To ensure the continuity of testing, the laboratory requires updates to critical infrastructure," Nate Smith wrote. "Additionally, the laboratory is planning for the autumn and the potential testing of both influenza and COVID-19 by utilizing new technology that can test both simultaneously."

Nate Smith, who also serves on the steering committee, said, "We basically have three platforms that are supported through this grant and then all the things that are needed to support a high volume of testing."

The first platform is a machine that should be operational next week within the department's public health laboratory and "that can do 700 tests for covid-19 at a time and we will greatly enhance our capacity," he said.

"We basically budgeted enough to cover 300,000 tests on that platform over the next six months," Smith said.

"We have a second platform ... that is not a high volume, but it gives results much more quickly and we have the instrument already in place," he said.

"This is just for the reagents for it. There are some situations where we need rapid results, and that's where that would fit in," he said. "We'll continue at some level the current platform that we are using that is very labor intensive and relatively low volume."

Smith said the other large part of the request for laboratory testing equipment would be used for certain machines at other facilities to conduct 330,000 more tests over the next six months.

He said the department's request for $22.4 million for contact tracing is "to scale up what we are doing now, get the right people in with the right training, the right equipment.

"This is really critical for us get back more towards to restore our economy, rapidly identifying those who have been exposed to covid-19, get them quarantined, get them tested," Smith said.

About 350 individuals will be needed to perform contact tracing for up to 18 months, Smith wrote in his memo, and this greater staff and workload are beyond the department's current capacity. A contract with a management company is necessary, he said.

Smith said the department now has about 200 contact tracers, many of them pulled from other programs.

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson told the steering committee that the university seeks $3.3 million to help officials understand the prevalence of previous covid-19 infections through antibody testing.

A team that included the Health Department, Arkansas Children's hospital and UAMS have a plan to develop high-quality antibody testing, use it to determine the presence of previous covid-19 infections in the state and dramatically expand "our capacity to do covid-19 antibody testing within the state," he said.

The testing that has been done so far in the state has primarily looked at the prevalence of active infections, Patterson said.

"Antibody tests will tell us the prevalence of previous exposure. We know that over 90% of patients who are infected with covid-19 develop antibodies. We are beginning to understand that the presence of these antibodies may confer protection against reinfection. We don't yet know how long antibodies remain positive or how long protection against infection is conferred," he said.

"However, as we begin to think about going back to having our students in schools in their communities [and] having mass gatherings, it's going to become critical for you as policymakers to understand how many people have been previously infected by covid-19 in communities," Patterson said. "And, also we need to work to expand the capacity to do antibody testing within the state."

Later, Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, a committee member, asked how much of these federal funds "do we need to hold back to be safe for the public good when November gets here and there is a big wave of infection."

"I don't want a number now, but I think we need to be looking at it and see how much money we need to be holding with the best guess of the experts," including Nate Smith and Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Larry Walther, Jean said.

Jean, who is a co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee, said, "I have just gotten word from some of the county people that they have been told to start looking at this CARES Act for the county and city funding [and], if that starts to happen, we are going to have requests coming out of the walls."

Elizabeth Smith said state officials "are working on trying to get at those figures because that is very important."

Walther said the state was buying personal protective equipment right now and "hopefully we'll have enough on hand that it will last for some time and that may not be something we will need to be doing toward the end of the year."

"But there are other things that would come up if we did have another outbreak from the medical side that we need to address," he said. "I agree 100% that we need to keep some amount in reserve."

Metro on 05/21/2020

Print Headline: State panel backs aid-fund requests


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