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State virus cases rise by 261; deaths up by 5

by Andy Davis, Alex Golden | May 29, 2020 at 7:32 a.m.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson discusses covid-19 cases during a briefing Thursday at the state Capitol. He noted that people with Spanish surnames made up 42% of the state’s new cases. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

The upward trend in new coronavirus cases in Arkansas resumed Thursday as the state's count rose by 261, the largest one-day increase so far aside from spikes that resulted from prison outbreaks.

The state's official tally of cases increased to 6,538, while its count of covid-19 deaths increased by five, to 125.

The state's northwest corner continued to lead the state's growth in cases, with 89 new cases reported in Benton County and 26 in Washington County.

The growth in cases in the state's Hispanic population also continued, with Gov. Asa Hutchinson noting that 42% of the new cases were people with Spanish surnames.

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"We want to explore that more carefully, but it indicates a consistency in trend that we do have challenges in the Hispanic community in terms of our outreach, making them aware, making sure we have the testing there, which we're expanding," Hutchinson said.

"We're learning more, and we really want to have an increased effort in outreach with our Hispanic community and other minority communities to make sure they're aware of the risk and the actions that they should take to protect themselves and to protect their families."

One of the state's most recent deaths was the first to result from an outbreak at the Randall L. Williams Unit in Pine Bluff. It was at least the 10th covid-19 death of a state prisoner.

Also, an 84-year-old Maumelle woman became one of at least 52 nursing home residents in the state who have died of covid-19.

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The number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 fell by four, to 104, while the number on ventilators increased by five, to 27.

Statewide, 1,830 of the state's cases were considered active, including 71 nursing home residents and 374 prison inmates.


Hutchinson said he will hold his daily news conference on the coronavirus Monday in Rogers, where he will meet with local representatives of the Hispanic and Marshallese communities and regional health care providers.

Department of Health Secretary Nate Smith said an increase in awareness of the virus among Hispanics may be one reason the cases are increasing.

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"It's an unfortunate, sad part of human nature that we tend not to perceive risk as much before it happens as we do after," Smith said. "I think part of why we've seen a lot of increase in positive tests among Latinos in the last week, especially asymptomatic Latinos, is because that messaging has gotten out there and people are coming in for testing."

While outbreaks have been reported at poultry companies, he said the increase is "larger than a workplace-associated outbreak."

He noted that the state's cases are rising faster among children than in other age groups.

"Workplaces can be a place where adults do interact with each other and facilitate the spread of covid-19, but this is really in the entire community," he said.

Health Department spokesman Meg Mirivel said earlier this week that out of $800,000 that the department has spent so far on a public education campaign on the virus, about $70,000 had gone toward advertising in Spanish-language media outlets, such as newspapers and radio stations.

An additional $100,000 had been spent on printed material in Spanish and Marshallese, she said.

She said the department is planning to spend another $400,000 in June and August.

"We're still working on allocating those funds, but I anticipate that a lot more of our funding for that upcoming campaign will be towards Hispanic media," she said.

She added that Health Department officials also give nearly daily interviews with Spanish-language television and radio stations in central and northwestern Arkansas.

The department, which held a weekend testing event Saturday in Springdale, also plans to hold more testing events in Washington and Benton counties, Smith said.

He said the department has been working with employers to offer on-site testing "if that makes sense for them."

"Having safe workplaces is an essential part of our economic recovery, and [they are] a really good way to get access to people who may be at risk for covid-19," he said.

"Some people will say this increase in cases shows we should have had a shutdown or a stay-at-home order, but food processing is an essential business" and so would be exempt from such an order, Hutchinson said.

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Of the new cases from Benton County, 76% were from Rogers and 85% had Spanish surnames, Smith said.

In Washington County, 80% of the cases were from Springdale, and 40% had Spanish surnames, he said.

Sevier County had 11 new cases, 45% of which had Spanish surnames, Smith said.

At least five of the new cases are workers at Ozark Mountain Poultry in Rogers and two work at Pilgrim's Pride in De Queen.

A Health Department report Tuesday listed 48 workers at the Rogers plant and 41 at the De Queen facility as having tested positive.

"There seems to be rapid increases in our Latino communities, particularly in the northwest part of the state. We are also seeing younger individuals" testing positive, Smith said.

The ages of people testing positive in Washington and Benton counties ranged from as young as 3 in each county to 72 in Benton County and 78 in Washington County, Smith said.

He said the average age of the new cases was 40 in Benton County and 38 in Washington County.

The average age of Craighead County's 12 new cases, all in Jonesboro, was just 26, Smith said.

Information on the average age of all the state's cases wasn't available from the Health Department on Thursday, but its website listed 39% as being age 25-44, 31% as age 45-64, 14% as age 65 or older, 9% as age 18-24 and 6% as under 18.

Hispanics, who make up 7.7% of the state's population, were listed as making up at least 11% of the cases Thursday.

The Health Department report listed them as making up at least 20% of active cases, in which a person has tested positive and has not yet recovered, as of Tuesday.

Smith said the number of people who lack symptoms when they test positive also appears to be increasing.

Such cases, he said, make up about half of all the people in the state who have tested positive and 74% of those who have tested positive at the Health Department's local health units since they began offering testing last week.


Community Clinic, which has five covid-19 testing sites in Northwest Arkansas, has seen a 378% increase in positive cases among Hispanic patients over the past week and a half, Judd Semingson, the clinic's chief executive officer, said Thursday.

The number of tests performed on Hispanic patients increased by 136%.

Semingson said some members of the Hispanic community are hesitant to get tested because they fear losing their jobs.

The federally funded community health center strives to translate all information into Spanish and Marshallese, and will soon try to open mobile testing sites to reach more members of minority groups.

Mireya Reith, executive director at Arkansas United, a Springdale-based immigrant rights group, attributed some of the spread in the Hispanic community to families continuing to gather or several members of the family going grocery shopping together.

People also sometimes must carpool to work.

"We had a lot of issues in our community not taking it seriously," she said.

That stems from distrust of government and a lack of awareness because of issues such as language barriers and because the Hispanic population was not initially highlighted in government reporting of covid-19 cases, she said.

She said her organization has been working with the Health Department and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to have more bilingual staff members conducting contact tracing.

She said meat processing plants should encourage and collaborate on testing, and assure employees that they will not face repercussions for testing positive.

Employers should also offer paid sick leave to employees who need to be in quarantine, she said.

Magaly Licolli, co-founder of Venceremos, an Arkansas poultry workers' rights group, attributed much of the increase to lack of protection for employees in the meatpacking industry.

"The workers work shoulder to shoulder," she said.

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She said Northwest Arkansas meat-processing companies are not protecting employees because the workers are not given paid time off if they need to be in quarantine or they are punished for not going to work if they need to stay home.

Licolli pointed out that people with covid-19 do not need to exhibit symptoms in order to spread the virus.

Licolli said the plants should shut down, test all employees, sanitize their facilities and provide paid leave to employees. They should not open up until their employees can go back to work healthy, she said.

While educating everyone on the virus is important, implying that Hispanics are getting the virus because they are not following the guidelines will lead to racial bias and discrimination, she said.

She's concerned that the Hispanic community will continue to see a rise in cases.

"It's going to be a catastrophe," she said.


Tyson Foods, based in Springdale, and Cargill Inc. have implemented worker protections that meet or exceed federal guidance, their spokesmen said.

Those measures include the daily screening of workers, distribution of masks and the construction of clear plastic barriers on production lines and in the breakrooms. The companies also require workers who test positive for covid-19 to self-quarantine for at least two weeks before returning to work.

"The health and safety of our team members, their families and communities remain our top priority," Tyson spokesman Derek Burleson said in an email Thursday.

Ozark Mountain Poultry, a subsidiary of Springdale-based George's Inc., declined to comment.

A Health Department report last week listed Tyson has having 46 employees who have tested positive at "various" locations, including 14 who had not yet recovered.

By Tuesday, a department report indicated that the company no longer had more than five active cases.

A Cargill plant in Springdale was listed as having 25 cases, all but one of which were active.

Cases are added to the state's official tally as information from laboratory reports is entered into a state database, which sometimes happens days after a test is performed, especially in the case of prison outbreaks.

The cases added Thursday did not include any positive test results from inmates.

The previous record for new non-prison cases was May 21, when the count increased by 453, including 224 in the community. That included 229 positive test results from prison inmates that had been announced earlier but hadn't previously been entered into the database.

Since then, the number of cases among the Arkansans who are not incarcerated has increased by more than 100 each day except Wednesday, when it grew by 95.


Also Thursday, a Hutchinson-appointed task force, led by Steuart Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, released an "interim report" with recommendations for reviving the state's economy.

Recommendations include using federal coronavirus relief funds to build testing and contact tracing capacity, conducting a campaign to educate families about child care options, investing in workforce training and rural broadband, and providing employers with protection from liability stemming from covid-19 infections.

"The Task Force recognizes that immunity should be targeted and would not apply in the instance that there was clear and convincing evidence that damages or injuries were caused through gross negligence, intentional conduct, or bad faith," the report says. "However, simply conducting or operating a business or organization during a health pandemic does not equal gross negligence, intentional conduct, or bad faith."

The protections could be established through an executive order by Hutchinson, during a special session of the Legislature or during next year's regular session, the report says.

Senate Republican Leader Bart Hester said last week that most of the Senate's Republicans had signed a letter asking Hutchinson to address the issue through an executive order and by calling a special session.

Hutchinson said Thursday that he's always supported "reasonable tort reform" but wants to speak with more legislators before deciding what course to take.

He said it's important for workers to be able to "exercise their remedies through worker's compensation if there's a causal connection with their contracting covid-19 and the workplace."


The latest virus deaths, as tracked by the Health Department, included the first two reported in Union County, the 31st in Pulaski County, the 24th in Jefferson County and the ninth in Lincoln County.

Jimmy White, a 73-year-old inmate who had been serving time at the Randall L. Williams Unit, died Wednesday evening at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, according to a report from the Pulaski County coroner's office.

White was admitted to the hospital from the prison for shortness of breath and coughing, and tested positive for covid-19 upon his arrival, according to the report.

He was serving a 30-year sentence from Montgomery County in 2001 for attempted rape, said Cindy Murphy, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections.

His death came a day after Jim Wilson, 60, who had been serving time at the Cummins Unit, died of the virus at UAMS Medical Center.

Wilson was sentenced to life in prison for rape in Craighead County in 1991, Murphy said.

Meanwhile, Wanda Willett, an 84-year-old resident at The Lakes at Maumelle Health and Rehabilitation, died of the virus Wednesday at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock.

Willett was admitted to the hospital on May 19 with shortness of breath, then tested positive for covid-19, according to a coroner's report.

Willett had a past medical history of dementia, unspecified cancer and hypertension.

A Health Department report Thursday listed 10 residents at the home as having died from the virus.

Information for this article was contributed by Nathan Owens, Jeannie Roberts, John Moritz and Eric Besson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; and Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Coronavirus daily updates and cumulative covid-19 cases in Arkansas

A Section on 05/29/2020


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