Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases continued its streak of triple-digit daily increases for a sixth day Tuesday as Gov. Asa Hutchinson unveiled projections predicting that the number will reach 8,500 by June 23.
The projection by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' College of Public Health was based on the state's trajectory of increased cases through May 21.
But Hutchinson said the state can keep that number below the projection by following guidelines issued by the state Department of Health.
Those include keeping a distance of 6 feet from other people when in public and wearing a mask when that's not possible.
"As you can see from these graphs, we're really at a critical point in our journey during this pandemic," Hutchinson said after displaying charts showing the UAMS projections and the state's daily increases in cases.
"The direction that we go from here totally depends upon the discipline and the commitment of the people of Arkansas to avoid circumstances in which they will contribute to the spread," he said.
The state's official case tally rose by 151, including one positive test result of a prison inmate that was announced earlier but not added to the count until information from a laboratory report was entered into a state database.
The count of deaths rose by two, to 119, while the tally of positive cases increased to 6,180.
Meanwhile, the number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 rose by eight, to 107, just shy of the earlier peak of 109 hospitalized patients on April 27. The number of patients who were on ventilators increased by one, to 18.
Hutchinson also announced that the state has surpassed his goal of testing 60,000 residents this month, with 61,922 conducted so far.
SMITH TO DEPART
At his daily news conference on the pandemic, Hutchinson also announced that Health Secretary Nate Smith will step down from his post Aug. 28 to become deputy director for public health service and implementation science at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Smith, 55, who has led the Arkansas Health Department since 2013, said he will be in charge of the federal agency's centers for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support; Preparedness and Response; Global Health and its Office of Minority Health and Health Equity.
Jose Romero, the state Health Department's chief medical officer and chief of the pediatric infectious disease section at Arkansas Children's hospital, was named interim secretary.
"Secretary Smith's selection to serve at the national level affirms what we already knew, that with him at the helm, we were in good hands," Hutchinson said in a news release later Tuesday.
"To say that I am saddened doesn't begin to describe my feelings, but I am thrilled that our nation now will have the benefit of his expertise, wisdom, and compassion."
Smith said he was encouraged by his colleagues in public health at the CDC to apply for the job after Stephen Redd, a rear admiral with the U.S. Public Health Service, announced his retirement from the post in February.
Smith said his decision to take the job wasn't the result of any differences with Hutchinson.
"There is absolutely no disagreement with the approach that we've taken here," Smith said. "Working for the governor has been one of the highlights of my career and made it very difficult to make this decision."
Hutchinson said he had known "for some time" that Smith had accepted a job with the CDC, "but he has stayed at the helm to work though this crisis here with us."Gallery: May 26 Press Conference
"Dr. Smith literally has stood by my side nearly every day since March 11, when I declared that COVID-19 was a health emergency for Arkansas," Hutchinson said in the news release. "We have spent uncounted hours communicating in every way possible -- in person, by telephone and text, and by email. His counsel has guided and informed every decision I have made as we have navigated this public health crisis.
"He educated me, counseled me, challenged me, and supported me. His access to national experts on infectious disease allowed us to quickly gather information and respond rapidly as our situation changed, sometimes by the hour."
Romero, the department's chief medical officer since April, is chairman of a CDC advisory committee on immunizations.
"Dr. Romero has been involved in the COVID-19 fight since the first day, and his move to Interim Secretary of Health will allow a seamless transition that will ensure we continue to successfully mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and cautiously lift restrictions throughout Arkansas," Hutchinson said. "Dr. Romero's international perspective and relationships have been invaluable in our fight against this pandemic."
NORTHWEST CASES RISE
The cases added to Arkansas' count Tuesday included 29 in Washington County, 17 in Sevier County, 16 in Benton County and 13 in St. Francis County, Smith said.
All of the state's other counties had fewer than 10 new cases, he said.
Over the weekend, the number of active cases -- people who have tested positive and have not yet recovered -- in Washington and Benton counties in the state's northwest corner surpassed Pulaski County's total.
A column in The New York Times listed the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers area -- which includes Washington, Benton and Madison counties -- as having the country's fastest growth rate in cases, with cases increasing an average of 12% each day over the past two weeks and doubling every 6.2 days.
On Tuesday, St. Francis and Jefferson counties, both sites of large prison outbreaks, had the state's highest number of active cases: 330 in St. Francis and 218 in Jefferson.
Washington County had the next-highest total, 180. followed by Benton County with 162. Pulaski County with 136. Sevier County with 76. Crittenden County with 72. Yell County with 69. Pope County with 62 and Union County with 59.
As of Monday, Smith said, workers in the state's poultry industry accounted for 301 of the state's cases, including 220 that remained active.
Benton County, had the highest number of such cases, 69, followed by Yell County with 54, Washington County with 44, Sevier County with 37 and Pope County with 22.
At Nebo Poultry in Dardanelle, 63 workers had tested positive as of Monday, according to a Health Department report. That was up from 50 reported Friday.
According to the report Monday, workplaces with at least five active cases among workers included:
• Ozark Mountain Poultry in Rogers, which had 48 cases, including all but two of which were active.
• Pilgrim's Pride plant in De Queen, which had 41 cases, all but four of which were active.
• Belleville Boot Co. in Forrest City, which had 35 cases, six of which were active.
• A Cargill plant in Springdale, which had 25 cases, all but one of which were active.
• Best Manufacturing in Jonesboro, which had 12 cases, half of which were active.
• A Butterball plant in Huntsville, which had eight cases, all but one of which were active.
Smith said infections among the state's Hispanic population have also been increasing, with members of that population accounting for 63 of the state's new cases.
Hispanics make up about 7.7% of the state's population, according to Census Bureau estimates, but 10% of the state's cases.
"Part of this may be accessibility of testing," Smith said. "We have not had testing as easily available to everyone in the state. Now that we're testing in 79 of our local health units, there's much greater accessibility."
Hutchinson he had asked the department to allocate more money in its public education campaign toward "targeting the minority communities, specifically our Hispanic community."
The 150 cases among non-inmates was the third-highest number of such cases added to the state's total in a day, coming after the 224 such cases that were added Thursday and 160 added Saturday.
Of the 2,984 tests that were completed Monday, 99, or 3.3%, were positive, Smith said.
The 151 total cases that were added include all the results that were entered into a state database over a daylong span ending at 10 a.m. Tuesday, including some tests that had been performed earlier but not yet entered into the official count.
Although the uptick has come as the state has loosened restrictions on businesses, Smith said he has yet to see a link between the business reopenings and increase in cases.
But he said individuals can do their part to slow the spread of the virus. One of the state's deaths, he said, was of a woman who became infected at a Mother's Day gathering.
"That's tragic," he said. "That's not what anyone wanted when they gathered for that.
"So we need to think about what we're doing, and how it may impact the people that we care about."
In an interview on ABC's Good Morning America on Tuesday morning, Hutchinson said he also hasn't seen a link between the loosened restrictions on businesses and increase in cases, particularly since the new cases are broadly spread across the state.
"I cannot attribute it based upon the data at this point," the governor said. "We're looking at it [data] every day. Part of it is, we've almost doubled the number of tests that we're doing. When you look at the data, you see that it's spread out among the state. You don't see a large outbreak in a particular area."
The state's "phased approach" to reopening lets authorities keep an eye out for potential outbreaks, Hutchinson said.
"I think we've made the right decision to start lifting restrictions in terms of our economy. We've got to open up, we've got to move our economy, but we ask all of our citizens to be responsible, to respect the guidelines," the governor said. "We didn't do it [reopening] all at once, and that way it allows us to measure and to see if we have any increase in cases."
The state's 1,729 active cases as of Tuesday included 72 nursing home residents and 466 prison inmates, Smith said.
CHURCHES BRIEFLY CLOSE
Also Tuesday, two Catholic churches said in nearly identical Facebook posts that they would reopen this weekend after the positive test of a parishioner prompted them to close this week.
The worshipper at the 8 a.m. Spanish Mass at St. Boniface and the 1:30 p.m. Spanish Mass at Christ the King, both on May 17, have tested positive for the virus, each church said in a post Monday on their respective official Facebook sites. Christ the King verified that the same person attended both masses that day.
According to the St. Boniface church bulletin Sunday, May 16-17 was the church's first weekend of public masses and confessions since closing. Christ the King had also reopened for in-person worship services that weekend.
Each opened under guidelines given by Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Little Rock diocese that included social distancing and temporary changes in how communion is distributed. He also gave a dispensation for the obligation to attend Sunday Mass during the pandemic, which is still in effect.
Christ the King announced on its website Monday that church staff members have not developed symptoms of the virus, and "out of an abundance of caution" they will self-quarantine. St. Boniface said in the post that its staff will also self-quarantine.
Both worship houses have since consulted with Taylor and a Health Department staff member, the churches said Tuesday on Facebook.
"It was determined that state, [CDC] and diocesan safety guidelines had been followed, and that the risk of infection for those attending the May 17 Mass was low," the statements said.
With the continued following of "all recommended safety measures," such as wearing masks, Christ the King and St. Boniface will reopen this weekend after each is cleaned and sanitized.
The latest virus deaths added to the Health Department's count were the 30th in Pulaski County and second in Sevier County.
A resident of a nursing home in El Dorado is also among the Arkansans who have died of the virus recently.
Myra Nelson, 90, died Sunday at Baptist Health Hospice in Little Rock.
She had tested positive for the virus on May 17 while she was a resident at the Courtyard Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in El Dorado.
She also suffered respiratory and renal failure, according to a Pulaski County coroner's report.
"She was dehydrated," said Karla Nelson, her daughter. "They sent her to the emergency room in El Dorado, where they gave her fluids, then transported her to Little Rock. She was very sick. Covid had attacked her kidneys and was affecting her breathing."
The nursing home has had 35 patients and 18 health care workers test positive for covid-19 and one death from the virus.
"She needed dialysis. That was the main reason for sending her to Little Rock," Karla Nelson said. "She was in such frail condition. Dialysis would just take too much out of her. I told them to just quit, to go ahead and let nature take its course. She had been through enough."
She was always an organized and productive homemaker and mother of a daughter and two sons, Karla Nelson said, adding that she remembers her mother as "sweet" and always working on "little projects" to help others.
Myra Nelson was married to Carl Raymond Nelson for 68 years before he died six years ago.
"We didn't eat out at restaurants. We had three hot, home-cooked meals a day," Karla Nelson said. "She always had a certain task she would do every day, whether it was dusting on Monday or mopping the next."
Myra Nelson will be buried in Nashville, Tenn., at Woodlawn Memorial Park and Mausoleum.
"I got to see her before she passed away. The nurse let me look through the window. She opened up the blinds," Karla Nelson said, trailing off. "I feel sorry when I see the deaths from this virus. They're not just a number. They're someone's mother or father, their child or brother or sister. They're someone."
According to the Health Department, 48 of the state's virus deaths have been residents of nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
Meanwhile, Ethel Morant, 76, of Jacksonville, died Saturday from covid-19 in the intensive care unit at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.
Morant was admitted on May 17 with shortness of breath and tested positive for covid-19, according to a Pulaski County coroner's report.
She had no other known diseases or injuries, according to the report.
The Washington County coroner also reported a 63-year-old Springdale man died of covid-19 Monday.
The man died at a local hospital and was not a nursing home resident, Coroner Roger Morris said.
Information for this article was contributed by Jeannie Roberts, Francisca Jones and John Lynch of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; and by Alex Golden of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 05/27/2020