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'Now is the time to act': Arkansas officials predict 1,000 more virus deaths by Christmas

Gov. Asa Hutchinson holds a weekly COVID-19 update at the Capitol. (Photo:KATV){p}{/p}
Gov. Asa Hutchinson holds a weekly COVID-19 update at the Capitol. (Photo:KATV)

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Arkansas officials pleaded with Arkansans to follow COVID-19 guidelines as cases, deaths and hospitalizations are surging right before the holidays.

“We are on the precipice of a significant and possibly uncontrollable rise in cases,” Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero said during a COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday. “This is like a boulder rolling down a hill. There will come a time when we can not stop it ... Now is the time to act.”

Adding to days of record-high COVID-19 numbers, Arkansas logged 34 new hospitalizations on Tuesday, bringing the state just below 900 hospitalizations. Gov. Asa Hutchinson met on Monday with a task force he created to support hospitals and reduce the spread of the virus going into winter. He said they discussed anticipated staffing issues and bed shortages at hospitals around the state.

There were 20 new virus deaths reported and1,145 new cases confirmed Tuesday.

At least 2,245 people have died from the virus in Arkansas, according to officials. And Hutchinson said that at the current rate, Arkansas is set to add 1,000 more deaths to its COVID-19 death toll before Christmas.

“For anyone that wants to enjoy the cheer of Christmas, that is a cloud that hangs over us,” he said at the news conference. “That should inspire us to do well.”

Romero said the state has not been able to pinpoint any specific places or events that have led to recent spikes, but that clusters have formed at small family gatherings.

Romero again discouraged Arkansans from inviting elderly family members to their Thanksgiving gatherings. He said a majority of the new deaths reported were from nursing homes.

“It’s the time to protect their lives,” Romero said.

Officials reported 16,976 active cases in Arkansas on Tuesday, the highest the state has seen. Pulaski County, Washington County and Benton County were, as usual, the top counties for new cases.

Tuesday’s briefing was held hours after a White House panel recommended limiting Arkansas’ restaurant indoor capacity to less than 25 percent.

Hutchinson said that is not part of the state’s plan, as it would leave some businesses “under water” and the funds from Arkansas’ back to business grant have already been spent.

The better approach, he said, is to rely on state compliance teams to ramp up checks. The department of health has done over 3,500 compliance checks since the end of June, officials said Tuesday.

Alcoholic Beverage Control Director Mike Moore said they have done over 3,700 compliance checks. And 97 percent of businesses have reportedly been compliant, but the 7 percent “can cause some huge problems,” Moore said Tuesday. Most of the violations have resulted in verbal warnings, but 181 businesses have received citations since June 28. And more are coming.

“We’ve been doing this for four months four months is a long time to be giving warnings,” Moore said. “What you’re going to see in the coming days, 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 better results.”

Moore asked Arkansans to pray for Arkansas the country so that hopefully on Christmas they have more people to celebrate with. And, of course, he encouraged mask-wearing.

“If you don’t want to do it for yourself, please do it for those around you,” he said at the news conference.

Last week, 46 schools switched, at least partially, to remote learning. And 16 more schools have made those modifications this week, Education Secretary Johnny Key said. There are 72 schools currently under modified learning plans.

Key said schools have been impacted by the recent spike in cases, but he said districts were prepared for it.

The White House panel also recommended that Arkansas stop athletic activities. But Hutchinson said that would be “terrible for the health of our young people.”

“I want the schools to continue to look at their activities as to how to better plan,” he said, as an alternative to canceling school athletics.

Later this week, Hutchinson will be speaking with Joe Biden about the state’s COVID-19 situation, he said.

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Nationwide, nearly 247,000 people have died from the virus and 11.3 million have been infected.

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