LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed Wednesday spending $22 million to hire hundreds more contact tracers to track the state's spread of the novel coronavirus as it near-record increases were reported in virus cases and hospitalizations.
Hutchinson said he wants to direct money from federal coronavirus relief funds, which health officials say will bring the state's number of total tracers to 900.
The Department of Health reported the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, the illness the coronavirus causes, rose by 19 to 267. At least 17,375 people have tested positive for coronavirus, an increase of 695 from Tuesday.
The department said 5,567 of those cases are active, excluding patients who have died or recovered.
The true number of cases is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
The number of COVID-19 fatalities rose by three to 240.
Arkansas has seen a major upswing in virus cases since last month, when the state began allowing businesses that had closed because of the pandemic to reopen. The state's active cases have risen more than 230% since Memorial Day, and hospitalizations have increased nearly 170% during the same period.
In addition, Hutchinson briefly addressed outbreaks at poultry plants. On Monday, China banned imports from a Tyson Foods Inc. plant in Springdale, after 13% of workers who were tested at the company's northwest Arkansas production facilities tested positive for COVID-19.
Asked why the number of cases in Arkansas is growing faster compared to other states, the governor said, "Well, as we've pointed out before, we have a large percent of our cases that come in minority populations that are heavily engaged in the food industry and the processing industry and that's a large part of our reason for increase in cases. I don't know whether other states have that level of concentration or not."
He added that other states, including Louisana, Mississippi, Florida and California, have had cases spike or are experiencing a growth in cases or a spike now. "To me, it really indicates that this is flowing across the United States at different times, in different ways, and no state is immune to it. That's what we've seen," Hutchinson said. "It's a matter of timing when it hits each state."
Asked if he thinks it's safe for Tyson plants in northwest Arkansas to remain open, given the recent outbreak there, the governor said, "Yes, they should remain open. They're a vital part of our food chain, not just in Arkansas, but across our nation. They have gone to extraordinary lengths to do testing, to do their own tracing as needed, and to put their facilities in compliance and even above that with the public health requirements. They worked closely with the Department of Health."
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Arkansas Business contributed to this report.