Concerns about the omicron variant of the coronavirus have led the chief judge of the federal court for the Eastern District of Arkansas to issue an order requiring civil and criminal hearings that cannot be held by telephone or videoconference to be postponed unless the presiding judge determines that the interests of justice require an in-person hearing.
"The omicron variant's extraordinary transmission rate presents challenges for holding trials in January, especially jury trials," Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. said in an administrative order posted Tuesday for the Eastern District. "Our Court, however, will press on -- holding the trials that need to be held and continuing those that can wait. We will deploy all of our various mitigation measures (masking, distancing, multiples spaces, and staggered start dates) with redoubled vigilance. And we will continue to monitor closely the number of citizens who report that they are unable to serve as jurors for virus-related reasons."
A similar order issued Nov. 24 by Chief U.S. District Judge Susan O. Hickey remains in effect until February 22 in Arkansas' Western District.
According to Marshall's order, which is in effect through January 31, he will leave it up to each judge presiding over trials scheduled for January to decide whether to postpone, based on the circumstances of each trial and the current state of infections in Arkansas. Marshall said in the order that absent a pending motion to continue, the counsel for both sides must file joint reports in each case set for trial this month indicating a willingness to go forward with the trial or seeking a continuance in the matter. Those reports, he said, are due today, adding that case-specific, virus-related reasons to continue will be freely granted.
Since the discovery of the coronavirus in Arkansas, Marshall has issued a total of 19 administrative orders intended to ensure the safety of court employees, attorneys, defendants and others conducting business at one of the district's three federal courthouses. To that end, he has ordered proceedings to be postponed or conducted remotely when possible and has postponed jury trials and grand jury proceedings temporarily at various times.
Despite suspending all court proceedings in the district's courthouses in Jonesboro and Helena-West Helena during most of the pandemic, Marshall has kept the federal courthouse in Little Rock open to the public throughout. Although a number of courthouse employees have contracted the virus, so far no transmissions have been traced back to the courthouse itself, according to the court clerk's office.
In his latest order, Marshall said the vigorous transmissibility of the omicron variant and the rapidly growing number of infections related to it have made it clear that the pandemic is far from over. He said the numbers given for current infections are likely an undercount because of a number of testing-related challenges and noted that hospitalizations -- while modest at the present time -- are on the rise.
Marshall said infections among detention centers and the Arkansas Department of Corrections are on the rise as well. According to Marshall's previous order regarding covid-19 protocols, dated Dec. 17, the Eastern District has approximately 600 individuals being held in 14 facilities in Arkansas and surrounding states awaiting resolution of their cases.
The Arkansas Department of Health reported Wednesday afternoon that there were more than 38,000 active cases of covid-19 in Arkansas, which is up by more than 30,000 active cases since Dec. 21, the point at which infections began rising steadily again in the state. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 9,200 people had died in Arkansas from covid-19 since the state's first recorded infection nearly two years ago, and more than 588,000 cases had been reported.
Since Jan. 1, hospitalizations for covid-19 infections have risen from 645 to 819, an increase of 174, according to the Health Department. Intensive care unit admissions have risen by 30, from 98 to 128, during the same time.
Marshall noted that the vaccination rate among courthouse employees is 95%, but some court personnel have tested positive for the virus despite being vaccinated and observing masking and social distancing requirements at the courthouse. The Health Department reported Wednesday that 53.1% of Arkansans older than the age of 5 have been fully vaccinated.