by Tyler Hale
Dozens of state and local leaders milled around in the Governor’s Conference Room this afternoon, waiting for the governor to step out from his office for an update on the ongoing coronavirus situation. Journalists tapped away at smartphones and photographers shifted from foot to foot as the sound of idle conversation filled the room.
When Gov. Asa Hutchinson stepped up the podium, he revealed that the coronavirus outbreak has ramped up, with five more presumptive cases of coronavirus have been detected in Arkansas. Of that total number, four of the cases have been connected to the original coronavirus case in Pine Bluff. The sixth case did not have contact with the Pine Bluff patient but had a history of out-of-state travel.
“The last 48 hours have been a whirlwind,” he said. “Overnight, I was advised that we have five additional presumptive positives. So, a total of six presumptive positives now, which does not come as a surprise because we’ve seen this in other states. Once you start testing, once you have an awareness as to the impact in one area, you obviously do additional testing, tracing and sourcing, and you learn of others who would have been exposed and you’re naturally going to have some additional positive tests.”
“It’s not a surprise, but It’s a signal that we have to take additional steps and actions. I look at it geographically – because something happens in one area of the state, does not mean that another area of the state is automatically impacted,” he said.
According to Nate Smith, the state’s chief medical officer, there has been no evidence of community transmission of coronavirus yet. While the four new patients contracted the virus from the Pine Bluff patient, the Department of Health has reportedly seen no evidence of widespread transmission. “This is not community spread at this time. These are contacts to cases. We’re also going to be assessing contacts to those cases. We don’t have evidence of community transmission…” Smith said.
However, Smith said that the patients had not tested positive for the virus before entering quarantine. All of the new patients have not been admitted to the hospital and are currently self-isolating.
Currently, there is a four-county cluster that the state is investigating. Hutchinson identified Saline, Jefferson, Pulaski and Jefferson counties as the primary focal points of the investigation. “When I say that they’re in those counties, it could be the patient, it could be a family member, it could be where they go to school, but there’s some contact with those four counties,” Hutchinson said.
The Department of Health is continuing to perform contact investigations based on the new patients in an effort to identify potential new cases. “It’s a widening circle of individuals that we’re identifying, having them quarantining and testing them if they becoming symptomatic,” Smith said.
Earlier on Thursday, reports came in that one of the new coronavirus patients is an Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) employee. During the press conference, UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson clarified that the patient is a UAMS trainee who had performed a rotation at Jefferson Regional Medical Center and ACH. The rotation at Jefferson Regional, he said, was the point of contact.
Patterson said that the fact that a healthcare worker contracted COVID-19 is not overly worrying.
“It’s not uncommon to contract COVID-19,” Patterson said. “it’s simply the nature of the fact that healthcare providers put themselves at the front lines in managing patients, therefore they accrue the risk of being some of the first infected with viruses such as this. This type of transmission is not unusual.”
UAMS is working with the state of Arkansas to combat the spread of coronavirus by procuring equipment and adding testing capability. None of the state agencies or health systems have limitless resources, Patterson said, and they will have to manage them to ensure that the necessary supplies are available where they are needed.
“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, medication, ventilators, and other medical necessities that will be need to adequately to take care of even a substantially larger burden of Arkansans infected with COVID-19,” Patterson said.
Securing the necessary supplies to manage the COVID-19 outbreak is a matter of resource availability, Hutchinson insists, and not finances. Gesturing to members of the State Assembly, he said the assembly leaders could potentially call a special legislative meeting to address the public health emergency.
The Centers for Disease Control announced that Arkansas will receive $6,205,347 to manage the state’s coronavirus response. The funds are part of a spending bill President Donald Trump signed on Friday, March 6, providing a total of $8.3 billion in funding and resources nationwide for coronavirus preparation, response and support.
“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,” Hutchinson said. “Now, the availability of the assets that we need are an issue. 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 we need…”
Securing adequate protective equipment for healthcare workers is a priority for Hutchinson, and he says the state has ordered additional equipment and that they are looking to “beef up” the stockpile of resources to fight the outbreak.
Another major issue facing state officials is testing capacity. The Department of Health is working with UAMS to expand the testing capabilities for COVID-19 in the state. The department is also waiting for confirmation from the CDC on the first five COVID-19 cases.
“Our protocol is that for the five positives, we will have those confirmed by the CDC. We’re very confident in the results and we’re acting on them as if they are confirmed positives, but we won’t call them confirmed until we have our first five positives confirmed by the CDC lab,” Smith said.
Patterson advises the general public to take precautions, including washing hands and isolating themselves if they have concerns about having the virus. In addition, he says that those who are potentially infected should not venture into crowded areas like emergency rooms and hospital clinics, unless they have been specifically set up for the virus.
“Our number one goal is to keep patients where they are if they are infected and if they are at a site where they can receive care,” he says. “Most of the care that is rendered to a patient with COVID-19 – in fact, all of the care that is rendered to a patient with COVID-19 is exactly the same as the care we would give to a patient with a severe influenza infection.”
As of March 12, there have been 127,863 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide with 1,323 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University. There have been approximately 4,720 reported deaths from coronavirus.