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Update: Schools in 4 Counties Close As State Aims to Curb Virus Spread

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Arkansas health officials and the governor’s office on Thursday advised public school districts in four counties to close for two weeks, as the state confronts six “presumptive” cases of COVID-19.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson; Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Dr. Nathaniel Smith; University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor Cam Patterson; and Arkansas Children’s CEO Marcy Doderer updated the state’s efforts to contain the virus, a day after the state reported its first probable case in Pine Bluff.

Five more presumptive positives emerged overnight, the governor said, and the state awaits confirmation of those cases from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The cases affected people in four central Arkansas counties: Saline, Jefferson, Pulaski and Grant. State medical professionals advised the governor to recommend closing public schools in those counties for two weeks to mitigate the virus’ spread, the governor said.

Smith said there is no evidence of community spread of the virus. All of the new cases are being watched on an outpatient basis right now.

Smith said four of the newly identified cases were connected to the Pine Bluff patient; the other had contracted it from someone out of state.

One of the new cases was a trainee from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who worked at the Pine Bluff hospital where the first patient is being treated. The trainee also practiced at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Officials said they were determining who else, including patients, may have come into contact with the trainee.

The school closures affect some of the state’s biggest districts, including the Pulaski County Special School District, the Little Rock School District and the North Little Rock School District.

“We recognize what this means,” the governor said. “That means that in many instances the daycare will close as well … that means parents might be staying home as well to take care of children.”

Hutchinson cited “innovative employers that have already made very generous leave available” and said the state is looking into how to help vulnerable children who won’t be receiving school meals.

Health officials said they were working to increase the capacity to test for the virus. Smith said the state’s health lab has the capacity to conduct 20 tests per day and could probably double that number, but added that “that’s not going to meet the needs of the entire state. 

“What we are using our public health lab for is to see where the epidemic is going and where it’s not,” he said. “So we are testing known cases.”

Hutchinson said the state needs the federal government to provide more tests and protective equipment for health care workers.

“Resources are not the issue in terms of financial resources and money to do the procurements to make sure we meet the needs out there now,” he said. “The availability of the assets that we need are an issue, and that’s where we want the greatest help from the federal government — to continue to expand the testing capability and help us on that, to continue to be able to make sure that we have the manufacturing capacity on the protective equipment.”

Hutchinson said Smith would make sure that Arkansas makes the right requests to get what it needs from the federal government.

Asked what he thought should be included in a federal stimulus package to help companies and workers affected by the virus, and what the state could do to shore up its economy, Hutchinson said the answer is in flux but the list of things to do is growing.

“Congress, clearly, is receptive,” he said. “Again, I want to compliment the General Assembly. They’re receptive as well. I have no doubt that we could call a special session of the Legislature if need be, and that they would put forth whatever was needed to address this problem.”

Hutchinson said the private sector, not the state, should be making the decisions on whether to postpone or cancel events. But he added that if the private sector doesn’t make the right decisions concerning events, he could mandate as part of an emergency order that events be postponed or canceled.

Patterson said companies and organizations should carefully consider their plans.

“If you’ve got a gathering of a thousand people that are coming from all over the United States, you don’t know where they’re coming from,” he said. “That’s probably an event that you don’t want to have happen right now. That’s really common sense. 

“If you’ve got a small gathering with a small group of people in an area that doesn’t have any active cases, I think it’s very reasonable to say that it’s the right thing to do to allow that event to go on.”

The announcements came as concerns about the coronavirus prompted other closures and cancellations throughout the state. Secretary of State John Thurston announced that the state Capitol would be closed to the public, with only authorized personnel allowed in for work purposes.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville said it was suspending in-person classes and would move to an all-online or other alternative method of course delivery starting Monday. Little Rock said it would close its community centers and Mayor Frank Scott asked that organizers of events in the city with more than 200 people reschedule. 

Hutchinson said any additional school closings would be taken on a case-by-case basis. An emergency declaration Hutchinson signed Wednesday gives Smith, in consultation with the state education secretary, the authority to close public schools because of coronavirus.

Patterson addressed questions about protecting health care workers from contracting COVID-19 and treating patients who become infected.

“It is important to emphasize that our No. 1 goal is to keep patients where they are if they are infected, if they are at a site where they can receive care.

“It’s also important to emphasize that we do not have limitless resources. But, for the time being, we have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, medications, ventilators and other medical necessities that will be needed to adequately take care of even a substantially larger burden of Arkansans affected with COVID-19.”

UAMS has a separate triage center set up on campus to deal with COVID-19 cases, he said.

You can watch video of the governor’s news conference below.

(Andrew DeMillo of The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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