Arkansas continues to be in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, according to the latest White House report. This red zone rating indicates that Arkansas has 101 or more new cases per 100,000 population
Released on Nov. 15, the report states that Arkansas has the 22nd highest COVID-19 case rate in the country with the 27th highest positivity rate, at approximately 10.1 percent, in the United States.
Throughout the state, 81 percent of Arkansas counties have moderate or high-levels of community transmission. Of this number, 55 percent of the counties had high levels – or red zone levels – of transmission.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson released the 24-hour case results during a press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 17. He revealed that 1,554 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases had been reported in the past day with 895 total hospitalizations and 16,576 active cases in the state. In addition, there had been 20 new deaths, bringing the state’s death total to 2,245.
The White House report warned that Arkansas could face a significant rise in COVID-19 cases based on its current case rate. “Given the change in the slope in the last two weeks post Halloween, Arkansas is on the precipice of a rapid, accelerating increase in cases which will be followed with new hospital admissions,” the report reads.
To combat the spread, the report provided a range of recommendations. These recommendations included conducting active testing in schools, recruiting local influencers to provide COVID-19 messaging to rural and urban communities, encouraging college students to continue COVID-19 mitigation efforts if they plan to return home, and ensure that hospitals have access to antivirals, antibodies, personal protective equipment and ventilators.
The report also recommended reducing indoor capacity for restaurants in red zones to less than 25 percent and limiting bar hours until cases and positivity rates decrease to the yellow zone.
During the press conference, Hutchinson said the state would not be reducing restaurant capacities. Currently, restaurants are allowed up to two-thirds capacity for indoor dining.
“If you put that restrictions back down to one-third, you will be shutting down a whole bunch of businesses. They’re there by a thread. In some cases, they have managed with a two-thirds capacity; they are already unlimited. If you cut back that further, you’re going to be putting a lot of them underwater and you’re going to be putting a lot of people unemployed,” he said.
According to Hutchinson, ensuring compliance with COVID-19 measures is a better approach than capacity reductions, and he said state agencies will be taking a more assertive approach to monitoring compliance for COVID-19 mandates. Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration regulatory administrator Mike Moore told reporters that 93 percent of restaurants and establishments had been compliant during the pandemic.
“However, we need to understand that even seven percent of non-compliance can cause some huge problems when it comes to this COVID-19 disease that our whole state is battling. Even one or two locations that are non-compliant can cause some real problem,” he said. “We are really trying to work with the restaurants, trying to work with the bars. Our goal is for them to stay open, to keep providing services to the good people of Arkansas, to keep providing paychecks to the employees. But also, we want to make sure that Arkansans are safe when they want to go out and eat.”
Noting that “four months is a long time to be giving warnings,” Moore stated that the department plans to ramp up enforcement for COVID-19 measures.
“What you’re going to see in the coming days is when we find people who are non-compliant, there’s going to be more accountability. We’re going to up that just a little bit to see if we can get some better results,” he said.
Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Jose Romero told reporters that the White House report was worrying and that it foreshadowed an “uncontrollable rise” that might occur if the state cannot mitigate transmission.
“As is stated I think for the first time – in poignant language – we are on the precipice on a significant and possibly an uncontrollable rise in cases. This is like a boulder rolling down a hill. There will come a time when we cannot stop it. It will continue to escalate and it will eventually overwhelm our health care facilities. Now is the time to act,” Romero said.
Romero reiterated the need for mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.