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Tracing Virus, Asking How Much to Tell Public

3 min read

Talk about a rock and a hard place.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is caught between his deep allegiance to faith and commerce and his duty to public safety in deciding how much to tell the public in the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor got a scolding from J.D. “Sonny” Tucker, executive director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, after the Arkansas Department of Health released a list of churches with what it called “documented COVID-19 exposure.” Tucker fears that publicizing where coronavirus-positive people have been could unfairly single out blameless churches and businesses.

He told Arkansas Business in a statement last week that Hutchinson and his recovery task force chief, Walmart heir Steuart Walton, had responded graciously to emails Tucker sent complaining that the state had unfairly linked two Arkansas churches to COVID-19.

Tucker himself is a member of the recovery task force, and he said his June 26 emails had been obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette through a state freedom of information request. The disclosure caused agita and highlighted what one local PR professional called a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem for Hutchinson in keeping the public informed.

If he gives detailed data on where virus-positive people have been, he might stigmatize businesses and gathering spots. If he stints on details, he’ll be accused of hiding facts from the public.

Tucker said in a statement that his emails “expressed my opinion as a member of the task force and represented the interests” of his churches. He said publicizing church visits by coronavirus-positive people “and possibly listing small businesses in the future” could slow the recovery. A recent surge in cases has put parts of the state’s reopening on pause, but churches have resumed services.

A June 26 Health Department briefing listed Cross Church, with several locations in northwest Arkansas, and Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro as sites visited by coronavirus-positive Arkansans.

“Those two churches had at least 22,000 unique individual attendees since Feb. 26,” Tucker said, “yet the AHD put them on the list for having four people attend (a family of three at one church, one person at the other) who later tested positive for the virus.” The churches “have provided an incredible amount of ministry” in the pandemic, he said, offering thousands of meals, disaster relief for communities and service to first responders.

Tucker said the church listings overstated the impact of in-person worship and may have falsely suggested that the churches ignored health guidelines.

“Governor Hutchinson graciously reached out to both churches and has also stated that he did not intend for the church list to be published,” Tucker said. “We pledge to pray for Governor Hutchinson as he navigates our state through these complex issues,” Tucker concluded.

The situation may require more than prayers.

Even as Tucker and business leaders were warning against singling out particular entities, the former state surgeon general, Dr. Joe Thompson, was on public radio Tuesday suggesting that “we may need the Health Department to start being more public about where COVID-positive individuals have been.”

While praising the governor for beefing up the state’s contact tracing staff and for promoting a model city ordinance demanding public mask-wearing, Thompson told KUAR that other states are telling the public far more about places visited by coronavirus-positive people. Springfield, Missouri, is a good example, he said.

“Their contact tracing is providing a different level of information than our contact tracing,” said Thompson, now CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. He said he worries that questions being asked by Arkansas’ tracers are meant “to validate that the opening up of specific directives did not cause a problem, as opposed to the opposite, which is let’s use contact tracing to try to solve a problem.”

A quick glance at Springfield’s online postings of “potential COVID-19 community exposures” clearly shows why businesses would prefer less-detailed disclosures. The Springfield-Greene County Health Department names specific businesses — Walmart locations, coffee shops and Dillard’s stores, for instance — noting when the infected person visited, whether they were symptomatic at the time and whether they were masked.

We can’t imagine many Arkansas businesses eager to join that list, though everybody agrees that public safety must come first.

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