Arkansas officials have set May 4 as the target date for beginning to reopen the state under new federal guidance.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that May 4 has been established as the goal for reaching the first phase of a new reopening plan announced by President Donald Trump on Thursday, April 16.
Under Trump’s “Open Up America Again” plan, states and regions must satisfy specific gating criteria before they can begin the process of opening up during the COVID-19 recovery. According to the guidelines, a phased reopening can begin once there is a downward trajectory of influenced-like or COVID-19-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period, a downward trajectory of documented cases and positive tests within a 14-day period, and when hospitals can treat all patients without crisis care.
According to Hutchinson, the “Open Up America Again” plan will be a “good model” that will provide common guidance for all of the states in navigating the COVID-19 post-peak landscape. He acknowledged that states can vary significantly from one to the next in terms of COVID-19 severity, but the plan’s criteria will serve as a signposts for where each state should be in fighting the virus.
Arkansas is already on its way to reaching its gating criteria, Hutchinson said. Both Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Dr. Nathaniel Smith discussed the findings of the Governor’s Medical Advisory Committee for Post-Peak COVID-19 Response, which stated that the “number of new cases per day and hospitalized patients have stabilized” in Arkansas. In addition, Hutchinson pointed out that there are less than 100 individuals hospitalized due to COVID-19 but there is an 8,000 bed capacity in the state. However, there has not been a 14-day downward trend yet. While the states’ testing capability remains limited, all symptomatic individuals are allowed to be tested for COVID-19.
Once the reopening process begins, there will be four priorities in the post-peak response. Smith identified these priorities as restoring Arkansas’ economy; protecting the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions; maintaining adequate medical and public health capacity; and preventing the resurgence of COVID-19.
There is a danger of increased COVID-19 transmission while reopening, according to the committee’s report. This danger can be mitigated through “careful planning” according to the committee as well as cooperation from the general public. Hutchinson said that Arkansans will be called upon to continue the established social distancing precautions, as well as maintaining rigorous hygiene practices even in Phase I.
Before the official reopening process begins, the committee report encourages Arkansas businesses to develop policies to prepare for reopening. In the report, these actions include developing policies for symptom and temperature checks, disinfecting high traffic areas, and acquiring necessary equipment and supplies to limit viral transmission.
Some of the existing COVID-19 directives may be lifted or modified before the Phase I criteria are met. Smith said that the directives have been targeted efforts rather than blanket orders and that they are looking at adjusting some of the directives to prepare for the reopening.
The committee recommended reinstating elective procedures when possible in order to increase capacity at hospitals throughout Arkansas. Eliminating elective procedures, the committee members concluded, has reduced staffing capacity and decreased revenue at health care centers.
Smith addressed the possibility of instituting reopening strategies on a county-by-county level rather than a statewide level. He said that the current plan is to have a statewide plan that respects regional differences. This is due to the varying levels of disease activity and severity in counties throughout the state. “A county by county approach may be appropriate for relaxing some restrictions, but this will need to be done thoughtfully and carefully and in a centrally coordinated fashion,” the committee wrote.
Once Phase I is reached, the state will begin working on the gating criteria for Phases II and III.
Currently, there are no scheduled dates for the other two phases in Trump’s three-phase reopening plan. However, Hutchinson said that he is planning to make an announcement on Saturday, April 18 that relates to the plans for reaching the Phase II and III criteria.