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Hospitalizations tied to virus hit new high in Arkansas

by Andy Davis, Jaime Adame, John Moritz | October 7, 2020 at 7:27 a.m.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks to reporters at the state Capitol in Little Rock on Tuesday in this still of video provided by the governor's office.

The superintendent of the Jonesboro Human Development Center died of the coronavirus Tuesday as the number of people hospitalized in the state with the virus reached a new high.

Steve Farmer, who also was chairman of the Craighead County Republican Committee, died Tuesday morning at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, where he had been hospitalized for more than three weeks, an official with the state Department of Human Services said.

His death came as the state's count of virus cases rose by 641, the largest increase since Saturday.

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 22, to 1,469.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus in the state rose by five, to 529, topping the previous record of 526 people who were hospitalized as of Aug. 4.

Also Tuesday, the Health Department issued revised rules allowing access to visitors at more of the state's nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and the Department of Education announced a new effort aimed at finding "no show" students who have failed to enroll this semester.

The Health Department also issued guidelines for Halloween activities, labeling in-person trick-or-treating as a "high risk" for spreading the virus while offering lower-risk alternatives, such as holding a virtual costume contest.

"We don't want to make Halloween like we had our last holiday in which we saw a spike in cases," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said at his weekly news conference, referring to Labor Day weekend.

"That's just not helpful, so everybody be careful."

The cases added to the state's tallies Tuesday included 532 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.

The other 109 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.

All 22 deaths that were added to the state's count were of confirmed cases, raising the death toll among such cases to 1,321.

The state's count of virus deaths also includes 148 among probable cases.

The number of Arkansans who were on a ventilator rose by six, to 99, while the number of Arkansas who have ever been on a ventilator rose by five, to 701.

The number of Arkansans who have ever been hospitalized with the virus rose by 72, to 5,658.

The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 88,071, comprising 84,230 confirmed cases and 3,841 probable ones.

The number of cases in the state that were considered active fell by 214, to 6,708, as 833 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.


Farmer, 67, joined the Human Services Department's Division of Developmental Disabilities Services in 2012 and had been in charge of the Arkadelphia Human Development Center before becoming superintendent of the Jonesboro center in 2017.

The state's five human development centers house Arkansans with severe developmental disabilities.

"His passing is a great loss not only for the Jonesboro HDC but for the whole state because he was such an involved and passionate public servant," Human Services Department spokesman Amy Webb said in an email.

"Our thoughts are with his family and everyone at the HDC."

The Craighead County Republican Committee, which had been posting updates on Farmer's condition in the hospital, said in a Facebook post Tuesday that the county chairman "was a great caring friend to all and a dedicated leader.

"We will always remember his warm smile," the post said.

Farmer's death was first reported by the television station KAIT in Jonesboro.

In another statement, Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb said, "Steve was a gifted stalwart, working hard as many to turn northeast Arkansas to our Republican Party. My prayers and condolences are with his wife Judy, their children, and grandchildren. May they find comfort in this most difficult time."

News of Farmer's death from the virus also brought criticism to the party's earlier posts from its Reagan Day Dinner hosted on Sept. 12 in Jonesboro.

Photos from the event show attendees -- including several state lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Little Rock and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas -- huddled together indoors and outdoors, often without wearing masks.

Farmer was not in attendance at the dinner, however, as he had already been hospitalized for his illness, according to Bradley Ledgerwood, a member of the county party who helped organize the event.

"He wore a mask religiously," Ledgerwood said of Farmer, adding that social media posts attributing his death to the Reagan Dinner were "cruel" and "heartless."

Ledgerwood said the decision was made to go ahead with the event after learning of Farmer's illness the day before because the commitment of out-of-town guests, including Gohmert, made it difficult to cancel.

Guests' temperatures were checked upon arrival, Ledgerwood said, and the party supplied masks that he said guests were encouraged to wear. None of the attendees at the party have since reported testing positive for the virus, he said. (Gohmert tested positive for covid-19 in July and has since recovered, according to media reports.)

During his weekly news conference Tuesday, Hutchinson was asked whether he believed Republicans in the state were taking the virus seriously in the wake of Farmer's death, and repeated instances of GOP elected officials being photographed in large groups without wearing masks.

Hutchinson said he believed only a "diminishing minority" of Arkansans failed to take the virus seriously.

"You've got various levels of thinking on this, within a broad, diverse party," Hutchinson said. "I'm the leader of the party, and I'm articulating, 'Please follow the public health guidelines,' setting that example."

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Melissa Stone, director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities Services, said officials don't know how Farmer contracted the virus. She said a number of administrative staff members at the center tested positive around the same time last month.

She said Farmer developed "some cold-like" symptoms, tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized all within the span of a few days.

"That's just the sad thing about it is in that same kind of time period, we had other people test positive, and they all had mild symptoms or no symptoms and fully recovered," she said.

"There's just no rhyme or reason to it. I guess that's what makes it so scary."

According to the Health Department, five residents and 35 staff members at the center had tested positive for the virus as of Monday.

Stone said Farmer is the first human development center staff member to die of the virus.

A 66-year-old resident of the Southeast Arkansas Human Development Center in Warren died of covid-19 at Baptist Health-North Little Rock on Aug. 29, she said.

"Steve's public service did not stop at the doors of the HDC," Human Services Department Secretary Cindy Gillespie said in an email to employees. "As a pastor and firefighter for many years, he had his hands in so many different missions.

"Among them were his service as a chaplain, firefighter, and first responder for the Brookland Fire Protection District and as a chaplain for the Jonesboro Fire Department.

"He also served on Brookland's board and volunteered with Craighead County Emergency Management coordinating training, the Arkansas Crisis Response Team, and volunteered during disasters."

She said Farmer was also a U.S. Army veteran who worked in the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

"As you can probably guess by now, he led a life of public service for decades, helping untold numbers of people, and was loved by so many," Gillespie said in the email.

She said he was the second department employee to die from the virus.

"In June, the Division of County Operations lost Elvin Taylor, whom everyone knew as Sam," Gillespie wrote.

"Sam had worked for us for over a decade doing long-term-care eligibility work. Everyone says that Sam was always laughing and had a zest for life that was contagious."


Rules issued by the Health Department on Tuesday allow "expanded visitation" at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other long-term-care facilities where no resident or staff member has tested positive in the past 14 days.

Previously visits were banned at facilities where a resident or employee had tested positive in the past 28 days.

Facilities offering expanded visitation must also have adequate staffing to meet residents' needs; sufficient protective equipment for staff members and residents; and screen employees and visitors for symptoms and possible exposure to covid-19.

Regardless of the number of cases at the facility, the rules also require facilities to allow visits by family members and friends that are medically necessary "as determined by the resident's physician or advanced practice nurse."

That includes visits "for residents who are struggling with a change in environment, lack of physical family support, grief after a friend or family member passes away, weight loss or dehydration because the resident is no longer receiving cuing or encouragement to eat or drink from caregivers or family members, and emotional distress due to not talking or interacting with others."

The department's March 13 rules said only that medically necessary visits "include visitation related to medical treatment and visitation appropriate for a resident's end of life care."

The department had adopted the 28-day rule in response to federal guidelines.

Last month, however the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services issued revised guidance encouraging outdoor visits "whenever practicable" and indoor visits at facilities that haven't had new cases in the past 14 days.

"While CMS guidance has focused on protecting nursing home residents from COVID-19, we recognize that physical separation from family and other loved ones has taken a physical and emotional toll on residents," the agency said in a Sept. 17 memo.

"Residents may feel socially isolated, leading to increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other expressions of distress."

Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said the new Health Department rules will allow expanded visits at about 50 facilities where they were previously banned.

"It's been a long time since a lot of our residents have seen their loved ones, and I know a lot of facilities are ready now to try to help facilitate that," Bunch said.

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Deputy Education Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer said 22 school districts had shifted some of their instruction to online-only as of Tuesday in response to virus cases, including six shifts that took place this week.

Last week, 13 such modifications were put in place, down from 26 the week before, she said.

Ringgold Elementary School in Benton shifted Tuesday and today to virtual instruction.

The school, which enrolled 479 students last year, according to state data, is set to resume in-person classes Thursday, a post on social media states.

Pfeffer also announced an effort, called Engage Arkansas, to help determine the pandemic's effect on school enrollment.

She said the effort "will create regional strategies to help find no-show students, identify at-risk students and also identify students who are disengaged."

She said districts will be provided with outreach counselors, and students will have access to academic coaches and telehealth services.

The effort involves the state's six Education Renewal Zones, which are housed in universities, the Human Services Department and Graduation Alliance, an organization that works with school systems across the country to reach out to students who stopped attending classes before graduating.

Little Rock School District on Tuesday afternoon reported six new positive covid-19 cases among students for the previous 24-hour period, including four at Central High School and two students enrolled in virtual-only instruction from Central. Among staffers, the district listed one new case, at its Carver early childhood site.

In addition, eight students at the Carver early childhood site are considered to newly be in quarantine, part of a total of 27 individuals -- staff and students -- new to quarantine.


Harding University in Searcy is reducing seating capacity in dining halls and common areas after a rise in covid-19 cases, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The private Christian university ranks second in the number of active cases among colleges and universities, according to the state Department of Health. A Monday statewide report listed the campus as having 43 active cases, second only to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's 68-case total.

The state's report on schools, published twice weekly, has provided different case numbers than what campuses report on their websites, and Harding on Tuesday reported 60 active cases, up from 44 on Monday.

"We had previously curtailed activities two weeks ago and saw improvement; now that we have seen an increase again, we are notifying students of further reduction in seating in common areas beginning tomorrow to limit students gathering," Jana Rucker, the university's vice president for university communications and enrollment, said Tuesday in an email.

Seating will be reduced from 50% capacity to 25% capacity, Rucker said.

A Sept. 22 alert published online described a temporary suspension of large gatherings. Rucker has said the campus will now decide week by week whether to continue its ongoing suspension of non-class large events.

The 60 active cases include 51 students and nine employees, according to the university.

The campus is continuing with in-person instruction, Rucker said.

"We have adequate room for quarantine and isolation at this time. While we have seen an increase, we have an extremely low infection rate within a campus of more than 5,000 members," Rucker said.

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In addition to traditional trick-or-treating, the Health Department's guidelines suggest avoiding indoor haunted houses and hayrides or tractor rides with people from multiple households.

The "lower risk" activities it suggests include carving pumpkins outside, "at a safe distance," with neighbors or friends, decorating the house or having "a Halloween scavenger hunt where children are given lists of Halloween-themed things to look for while they walk outdoors from house to house admiring Halloween decorations at a distance."

"Moderate risk" activities include "one-way trick-or-treating where individually wrapped goodie bags are lined up for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance (such as at the end of a driveway or at the edge of a yard)."

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They also include "open-air, one-way, walk-thru haunted forest where appropriate mask use is enforced, and people can remain more than 6 feet apart."

"If screaming will likely occur, greater distancing is advised," the guidelines say. "The greater the distance, the lower the risk of spreading a respiratory virus."

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The guidelines also say a costume mask is not a substitute for a cloth mask, and they recommend against wearing a costume mask over a cloth face mask because it might make it difficult to breathe.

Instead, they suggest wearing a Halloween-themed cloth mask.


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