State confirms 794 more cases of coronavirus
Washington, July 15, 2020
Tags: Health Care
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
After two days of smaller increases, Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases on Tuesday climbed by 794, the fourth-highest single-day rise so far.
Meanwhile, in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, all six members of the state's congressional delegation joined Gov. Asa Hutchinson in calling on the White House to address the country's shortage of materials known as reagents, which laboratories need to conduct tests for the virus.
"Recently, we were advised that a reference lab used by many Arkansas hospitals has canceled their testing contracts due to a lack of sufficient testing reagents," the state's two senators and four representatives said in the letter, dated Monday.
"Likewise, Arkansas hospitals have had their internal testing capacity limited to ten percent of their machines' and staff's ability to run tests due to a lack of reagents."
They said the situation had prompted the state to consider lifting a requirement that hospitals test patients for the coronavirus before performing elective surgical procedures on them.
Keeping the rule in place would force hospitals to cancel most elective procedures, while eliminating it would "mean that medical professionals must assume that the patient has COVID-19 causing the medical professionals to utilize [personal protective equipment] at a rate faster than necessary," the congressional delegation said in the letter.
"Either option puts Arkansans at risk."
The number of Arkansans hospitalized with covid-19 on Tuesday increased by six, to 445, while the state Department of Health's count of virus deaths increased by eight, to 331.
The number of hospitalized patients who were on ventilators increased by two, to 91, while the state's cumulative count of cases rose to 29,733.
The number of cases in the state that were considered active increased by 48, to 6,558, as 738 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
The laboratory that canceled its contracts with Arkansas hospitals isn't named in the letter, but Jeff Naft, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock, said it is American Esoteric Laboratories in Memphis.
"We know specifically that CHI St. Vincent and Baptist [Health] have been affected, but were told that there are a number of other Arkansas hospitals that use this lab as well," Naft said in an email.
Spokesmen for the two health systems and the Memphis laboratory didn't respond to messages seeking comment on Tuesday evening.
"Because of the overwhelming requests for covid testing and because of the limited testing supplies, the turnaround time for the covid test has been changed to between seven and 10 days," the laboratory said in a recorded message to callers inquiring about tests. "Results will not be available until that time."
A White House spokesman also didn't respond to a request for comment on the letter.
Although the letter refers to a requirement that hospitals test patients for the coronavirus up to 48 hours before a scheduled procedure, the requirement was modified in May to allow procedures up to 72 hours after a coronavirus test that comes back negative.
Last week, the Health Department said it was modifying the requirement again to allow procedures up to five days after a coronavirus test is administered "due to delays in commercial laboratories' ability to return test results."
A test within 48 hours before the procedure is still "strongly encouraged."
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill confirmed that the department is considering lifting the requirement altogether.
She said it is evaluating the percentage of such tests that turn out to be positive for the virus and "considering whether this is beneficial or not."
"The turnaround time of the test is a consideration," she said in an email.
"However, if the overall positivity rate is low and the benefit of the test is low, then the turnaround time of the test would not be relevant."
At his news conference on the pandemic on Tuesday, Hutchinson said he's also asked state Health Secretary Nate Smith for proposals on increasing the capacity of the department's laboratory.
On Monday, the lab conducted 1,832 tests, the most it has performed in a day. The department also received results from 3,731 tests that were performed by commercial laboratories on that day and 466 tests that were performed by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
"We want to have the control of our own destiny, and to have more control over our destiny and our testing, we have to build that capacity" at the Health Department's lab, Hutchinson said.
Smith said the department is using two "high throughput" machines from Waltham, Mass.-based PerkinElmer for the bulk of its tests and hopes to add a third one this month at a cost of $220,000.
"Because it's not one of the more popular ones, there seems to be enough reagents right now," he said.
He said the department also plans to buy a fourth machine, from Thermo Fisher Scientific, also based in Waltham, Mass., but those are in short supply.
"The Thermo Fisher may require more time," he said. "Initially we were told three months, but we've gone back to them and if we can get something more quickly, we will."
Also on Tuesday, the Arkansas National Guard announced that Hutchinson had activated 14 medics to help staff a facility near UAMS that houses people who have tested positive and can't safely isolate themselves at their own homes.
Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said the medics will help with day-to-day activities at the facility but won't be providing medical care except in an emergency.
Hutchinson said the state is also trying to strengthen and streamline its enforcement of the Health Department's rules designed to limit the spread of the virus in restaurants and other businesses.
"An example of what the Department of Health is facing, they have 1,000 complaints that are pending, that have to be reviewed," Hutchinson said. "There's a lot of work in that, a lot of process. You want to treat businesses fairly, but you also want them to take the public health guidelines very seriously."
Lesnick said the department had completed 1,993 inspections as of Monday, including four inspections of casinos, and Alcoholic Beverage Control agents had conducted an additional 354.
Some were in response to complaints, and others were on the department's own initiative to check on compliance with its directives, he said.
The cases added to the state's total on Tuesday included 111 in Pulaski County, 68 in Washington County, 52 in Sebastian County, 41 in Pope County, 37 in Johnson County, 36 in Benton County, 29 in Craighead County and 24 in Faulkner County, Hutchinson said.
Smith said 33 of the cases were among prison or jail inmates.
In Faulkner County, 28 jail inmates have tested positive since Sheriff Tim Ryals started testing all inmates and employees last week, the sheriff's office said in a news release.
Seven of the inmates have been released: five who were released with an order to isolate themselves at home and two whose results were pending at the time. They have since been notified of the test results.
The remaining 18 men and three women are being kept in a part of the jail separated from other inmates, the sheriff's office said.
Two detention officers have also tested positive.
The sheriff's office said it started the tests after an inmate developed symptoms about two weeks ago.
It said it is cleaning cells and communal areas according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, screening new inmates for symptoms and other risk factors and housing them in a quarantine area for 14 days after they are booked in.
"All employees at the detention centers (who are in contact with inmates infected with COVID-19) are required to use personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes N-95 masks, face shields, and other recommended PPE," the sheriff's office said in the release.
"Masks are utilized by employees throughout the detention center."
The sheriff's office said it also modified the ventilation system in two booking cells to make them "negative pressure cells," to reduce the possibility of the virus spreading.
"The Sheriff and his staff are committed to ensuring the health, safety, and wellbeing of every detainee and employee," the sheriff's office said in the release.
The Sebastian County sheriff's office said two inmates and a second employee at its jail have also tested positive.
After learning on July 8 that a jail deputy had tested positive, Sheriff Hobe Runion coordinated with the Health Department to conduct mass testing at the jail, with about 350 tests being administered, according to a news release.
Runion also notified court system personnel and law enforcement agencies that use the jail, according to the release.
The two employees who tested positive are on leave, and the inmates who tested positive are being isolated from the rest of the jail population.
The state's recent virus deaths include the first two inmates at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern to die of the virus and the third at the East Arkansas Regional Unit near Brickeys, Department of Corrections spokesman Cindy Murphy said.
She said one inmate from the Ouachita River Unit died July 2 at National Park Medical Center in Hot Springs.
The department didn't know the cause of death until recently, she said.
She said the inmate was in his early 70s and serving time for sexual assault.
A second inmate at the prison died Monday at Saline Memorial Hospital in Benton, she said. She said he was in his early 70s and serving a sentence for first-degree murder.
The inmate from the East Arkansas Regional Unit died Sunday at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, Murphy said.
He was in his mid-60s and serving time for sexual assault, Murphy said.
Information for this article was contributed by Thomas Saccente of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.