Update: Arkansas Reports First 2 COVID-19 Deaths

Update: Arkansas Reports First 2 COVID-19 Deaths

Arkansas on Tuesday afternoon reported its first two deaths from the coronavirus outbreak.

Faulkner County's deputy coroner said a 91-year-old man died Tuesday morning at a Conway hospital from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. State Health Secretary Dr. Nathaniel Smith said the other death was a patient in his or her 50s in central Arkansas.

The number of coronavirus cases in the state had risen to 218 as of Tuesday's daily news conference, officials said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced during the conference that a special session of the Legislature he had previously promised will begin Thursday. Arkansas expects to see a $353 million budget shortfall over the next three months, an economic result of shutdowns tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, and lawmakers are meeting to address that deficit.

Arkansas also received its second allocation from the national strategic stockpile of personal protective equipment for health care workers, including 27,800 n95 masks.

The state expects another one million PPE units to begin arriving over the weekend, thanks to the procurement office of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Combined with Tuesday's allocation, the state should have what it needs for the next 60 days, Hutchinson said.

He added that other states have seen a quicker rate of infection and that Arkansas has time to prepare, to look at how to increase the number of hospital beds available in case they are needed, and to stockpile things like ventilators and respirators.

The governor said he had been asked why he hasn't issued a shelter in place order or closed all businesses in the state. Hutchinson said he believes directing certain businesses to shutter and others to stay open is the right move for now.

"You have to ask the question 'If you go further and close more, when do you open them up when you know we're going to be in this situation for eight to 12 weeks even before it starts peaking?" Hutchinson said. "With that, we need to make sure that we make the right decisions now. And as long as the public does what they need, and our businesses follow the guidelines we offered ... [that's] obviously the best thing we can do as a society."

Asked about President Donald Trump's statement about wanting the country to be back to business as usual by Easter, the governor said he hadn't heard that comment, but that it sounded as if Trump was "speaking in a hopeful way."

"Do I think that's going to happen? As I've indicated before, we're still on the lower end of this upswing," Hutchinsons said. "I'd like to hope that we're going to keep our economy moving even with this challenge. I know it has hurt small businesses particularly ... My heart aches for them, but we are going to do the best we can to have the personal distancing, to follow these guidelines to get over it. But I think this is going to be here for some time."

Smith added that Arkansas was one of the last states to get cases and, because it is rural, the state is expected to have a slower increase as well as decline in the rate of infection. That's good, Smith said, but it could also mean that Arkansas'economy could take longer to return to normal. He said he thought Easter "would be early" to expect a return to business as usual here.

Also on Tuesday, Smith encouraged Arkansans to hold off holding large funeral services during the outbreak, as those might put people at greater risk of catching the virus. He suggested smaller family gatherings instead, and holding them outside, weather permitting.

Then he clarified that employers are not being directed to have workers with no symptoms tested for COVID-19 before work. They are being encouraged to screen workers on a daily basis for symptoms and by taking temperatures.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, including fever and a cough. But for some, especially older people or patients with underlying health issues, it can cause serious pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people who catch the virus recover, but even asymptomatic cases can spread the disease.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

You can watch video of the news conference: