Thursday, September 3, 2020

This transcript was auto transcribed by


cases, arkansas, vaccine, governor, romero, legislators, pandemic, antigen test, department, number, emergency, guidelines, question, college students, cdc, important, male inmates, positivity, general assembly, students


Andrew DeMillo – AP, Alex Burch – KATV, Neal Gladner, Emma Claybrook – 40/29, Dr. Jose Romero, Secretary Johnny Key (ADE), Sec. Solomon Graves – ADC, Governor Asa Hutchinson, Andy Davis – ADG

Governor Asa Hutchinson  00:00

Good afternoon to everyone. Thank you for joining me for today’s COVID-19 update. I’m pleased to be joined by Secretary Jose Romero, Secretary Johnny Key of Department of Education. And we got Secretary Solomon Graves here Department of Corrections to give an update as well. So we’ve got a full schedule today. But let me start by addressing the fact that Representative Dan Sullivan and a few other legislators have filed a lawsuit challenging the executive authority to deal with the current emergency that we have. And I think it goes without saying that this is really not an attack on the Department of Health but is attack on the broad executive authority that I as governor have acted under during this emergency. And this actions that I’ve taken during the emergency is based upon what has been approved by the Arkansas General Assembly that gives the authority for a governor a chief executive to manage an emergency and to act quickly, because it is that type of urgent situation. At least seven of the legislators that are named in the suit were on the Legislative Council at the time the rule was approved, which allows the Department of Health to issue the directives that are in question today. And so that was in December of 2018, and the legislature wisely approved those rules that gives authority to the Department of Health and the Executive Branch to act during this emergency. The argument of the legislators is that they consider the Department of Health guidelines and directives as rules that the General Assembly should review, should change, should rewrite, should allow or disallow, and I don’t know Even though my great respect for members of the General Assembly, they bring a great deal of expertise, I don’t know any of them who are as qualified in public health matters as our epidemiologist and our public health leaders at the Department of Health. Regardless of that, that is responsibility has been assigned to them, and under the legislators argument, the General Assembly would be deciding what the public health guidelines should be for the Salt Bowl at War Memorial Stadium. They would be deciding and debating what kind of guidelines should be in place and directives be in place to have audience at Razorback Stadium or Arkansas State University or they will be debating whether we should have the Chuck Wagon races in Clinton because those are based upon public health guidelines, directives and guidelines that is assigned to the Department of Health. And so that is not how to act quickly during an emergency. Those are executive branch functions that are based upon the authority wisely granted by the General Assembly. Now, I as governor, I’m accountable to the people of Arkansas, I’m elected by the people of Arkansas and the decisions I make are accountable to them. That’s democracy and our representative government in action. But when people are dying, you don’t need delay. You need quick action. There is a national emergency, and 50 states have declared an emergency. President Trump has declared a national emergency and we are acting based upon the authority that the legislators have given to me. Now, I am delighted that the majority of legislators understand how this works, and understand the necessity of executive action during a pandemic. But the legislators have power to end the emergency if they chose to do so. They could do it by concurrent resolution which means they can call a meeting of the of the two bodies and by Concurrent Resolution, they can end the emergency and they can take action. Now, if they did end the emergency, that means a lot of things goes away that are based upon actions that I have taken. If the emergency ends then so does telemedicine. If the emergency ends the liability protection for small businesses would end. If the emergency ends the suspension of rules to allow Virtual Education as an option would be curtailed, and all kinds of other things from e-notary to the signing of wills during a pandemic. And including, we would have to end the rapid licensure of medical personnel that have been critical during this time. These are examples of executive action that’s been taken that has been necessary during this pandemic. There is a small group of legislators who I respect that have filed this lawsuit. But I believe that the fact that they have not taken steps to end the emergency under their power is broadly supported by the vast majority of legislators and I’m grateful for their support. I do believe it is important that Representative Dan Sullivan and the minority – the minority group of legislators that have filed this lawsuit, they are raising money, they’re raising money as official acts as public officials, elected officials, and they should disclose each and every donor that is contributed to the filing of this lawsuit. I believe that would be appropriate. It indicates transparency, they’re elected officials and if anybody is trying to gain influence through this, then that should be disclosed. And I believe that that is important. With that, I know that’s in the hands of the judiciary now, but I wanted to make those comments since that lock lawsuit has now been filed.  I also wanted to mention that yesterday, we did receive a letter from the CDC, Dr. Redfield, indicating that there could be a vaccine that is available even as early as November 1. I have reviewed that letter. The letter asked us to expedite the development of facilities as needed for the storage of the vaccine. But Dr. Romero is intimately engaged in that review as being on a key committee – chairman of the committee that reviews that and we have to have more information before we can actually start building or knowing what type of facilities are needed. We have to know more about the requirements of the particular vaccine, but we stand ready to help and to facilitate and expedite when we get more direction as to what is specifically needed from the state in terms of the vaccine. Now, let me go to the case report. And I think the case report today does indicate we continue to be in an emergency. Today we have an additional 969 cases. That gives us 63,081 cumulative cases in Arkansas. We do have a decline which I’m grateful for, of hospitalizations. We have a minus 10. So it’s down to 425. And we have 20 additional deaths here in Arkansas that Dr. Romero will talk about in more depth, which brings us to 861 Arkansans who have died as a result of COVID-19. Testing was a very good testing day with 7827 test that were completed in the last 24 hours. And while Dr. Romero will give us the number of counties that had more than 20 cases, I wanted to mention the top county first, and that is Washington County. Of the 969, new cases Washington County had 211. Now obviously in Washington County, we have the University of Arkansas, and 81% of those new cases were between the ages of 18 and 24. And so I think it can safely be surmised that many of those new cases are college students. And it’s just a signal that we have a lot of work to do here in Arkansas, that the virus is still out in our community in various ways. And we have to protect each other. We have to follow these guidelines. And I want to urge all of the college students as we go into the Labor Day weekend. I understand that Many will probably not be going home since they just got on campus. So they’ll be around and they’ll have some free time. And you’ve got to be cautious over this weekend because 900 cases can be 1500 cases. 211 cases in Washington County could become 500 cases in Washington County. So we need and is not just Washington County, there’s Jefferson County, there’s Craighead County, we need all of our, our college aged kids to take this more seriously than the average college student takes a pandemic. And we asked you to make sure you protect others over the course of the weekend so we can continue and to have the kind of school year we all expect.  With that, let’s go to the graphs. And we can see the high number of cases which is getting it’s not past the top the largest day but it is certainly a high day that we’ve Had, let’s go to the next one. You see the rolling average has an uptick today. Hopefully that rolling average will not go up. The next one is the number of hospitalized. And we see it dip down a little bit which is encouraging to us. We’ll see where it goes from here. But we don’t want to get to the high number we had before. On the active cases, we’re not near the level that we have been when we had over 7000. But we do have over 5000 active cases. This is the antigen test and this is what I indicated we are going to be doing. And so we’ve had a cumulative number of 1123 antigen test, which means it is growing because that’s 1/10th of how many I want all month. So I’m encouraged by that number. In the antigen test for the last 24 hours, we’ve had 533 antigen tests. Of those 59 were positive, that gives us a 11.1% positivity rate for our antigen test. And then we can see the positivity rate, which I just talked about for antigen test. You can see that just a little bit over 10%. And this is the PCR test in Arkansas. And this is the way we’re going to show it antigen test, PCR test. They’re all cases that we’re reflecting but we still want to be able to separate those test results. And our seven day rolling average of positivity is down but that’s going to be backfilled. So I really look back more on the back of this timeframe to see where we are because that has already been backfilled. So we wait to see what that trend is. And then this just shows that we had a good day In our testing with our commercial lab, same with our Department of Health, and I think that’s – In back on the antigen testing, no, the one we had, this is showing what’s going to be on the website today, right here. This is going to be on the website and this is how it’s going to be the antigen testing volume and percent positivity that will have it broken down for the longer time period and then the most current time period and then the total number of confirmed and probable cases the cumulative number will be reflected there as well, which are the confirmed cases and then the probable cases which are the from the antigen test. So that will be available for the website. And this is what you’ll see when you go to the website. If you want the COVID status updates, check that and you’ll be able to get that information. And then finally, before I turned over Dr. Romero, it is significant to note that while we are challenged in higher education, in K through 12, if you look at where we started schools and the number of positive cases in the schools versus where we are now after the completion of a week and a half, almost two weeks, we’re only up one additional positive pace in our K through 12. And so Secretary Key all the administrators, teachers, the students, they’re really doing a good job out there and those are encouraging numbers with that. Dr. Romero.

Dr. Jose Romero  13:50

Thank you, Governor. So continuing with the numbers total number of cases in Arkansas to date are 63,081 As mentioned by the governor, we had 20 additional deaths added to the rolls yesterday for 861 cases. This is due in part to to a cluster of deaths that occurred in Mississippi County. Eight of the nine deaths in nursing homes occurred there. We have only a single delayed report. The testing has been mentioned. Just let me mention that in addition to that, that the Arkansas Department of Health contributed to the total 2374 tests performed. There was a significant uptick in the commercial and private laboratory testing of 5082 and a University of Arkansas for medical sciences contributed 371. There were eight counties that had a 20 or more cases in them. The governor has mentioned Washington as being the top county with a significant increase to 211 cases, and as mentioned 81% of those cases came from the age group between 18 and 24 years of age. Pulaski County also suffered an increase of 90 cases. Benton 47 cases was number three, Jefferson County increased to 38. Important to note again that the colleges are contributing significantly to that number 50%, Approximately 50% of that increase was due to individuals tested between the ages of 18 and 24. Number five was Sebastian at 36 followed by Saline, Saline at 33. Faulkner at 27 and Craighead at 25. When one more piece of information in comparing the start of college to where we are today, we’ve had a significant increase again in that in that number of individuals, so 250 new cases among the college age group. So the colleges or universities are driving this forward. So I think that my message for today is that really again directed towards the college and university students. We are seeing significant numbers of cases from those institutions. They are the reflection of a less than rigorous adherence to the recommendations that have been made over and over again and I will repeat them I’m sorry, using your facemask, social distancing handwashing. As we as I mentioned yesterday, I understand and we all know that colleges time to socialize, but we need to do this in a very respect you need to do this in a very responsible manner. And as the governor mentioned, we’re coming up on a major holiday. This will give the college student a lot of free time. And as mentioned, many are not going to be going home. So I cannot stress enough the importance of this, because this will increase significantly more if it’s not brought under control now. So with that, I’ll end and turn the podium back over to the governor. Thank you, sir.

Sec. Solomon Graves – ADC  17:25

Thank you, Governor, for your continued leadership during this pandemic and for your support of the announcements that how I will be making in short order. First, I think it would be helpful to provide a case count for the Department of Corrections. As of this morning, our current case count is 432. With our largest cluster of cases being at the following three units, the Varner unit in Lincoln County with 190 active cases. Eighty-one (81) cases at the Wrightsville unit in Pulaski County and 53 cases at the Benton work release center in saline County. The first announcements that I want to make this afternoon is that beginning next Tuesday the Division of Correction will receive will resume the intake of male inmates to our Ouachita River Correctional Unit in Malvern. Ouachita River serves as the intake unit for male inmates coming into the system. Intake has been suspended since June when we had the initial outbreak at the Ouachita River unit. And given their sustained us success and in the recovery of the positive inmates we have there, we are at a point where we can move forward with intake. We will begin bringing in inmates in groups in groups of 50. This number will allow us to cohort new inmate new intakes together for the duration of this Initial quarantine period, and will also support our ability to test those inmates and further isolate should a positive case be identified before those inmates are transferred to their unit of assignment. As of this morning, there are currently 1484 male inmates backed up in the county jails. And we understand that this does place a real burden on our partners in the local law enforcement community, as they themselves continue to grab and grapple with the impact of COVID and their need to create space within their county jails.  The next announcement I want to make is that through a partnership with the Department of Corrections, Wellpath LLC, which is our contract medical provider and the Department of Health, We have built a live interface between the Department of Health laboratory management system and the offender record system utilized by the Department of Corrections here in the state of Arkansas. This interface will allow us to electronically process laboratory results for the first time during this pandemic. Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have been manually processing lab results, which have often required our medical staff to work most evenings and weekends to process those lab results as quickly as possible. In fact, the lab results for a single patient were touched at least four times from start to finish before those lab results were considered to be fully processed by our contract medical provider. So that it that development is a an exciting, exciting enhancement for us internally, and is reflective of some of the successes we have been able to realize, through Governor Hutchinson his transformation efforts since July 1.  Finally, I want to announce that beginning next month, we will implement a phased re-opening up in-person visitation at state prisons and correction and community corrections centers here in Arkansas. This phase the reopening of in-person visitation will be informed by the case case counts at the individual prisons and community corrections centers and also reflect the medical opinions of Wellpath LLC, and the Department of Health. The specific elements of our in-person visitation will be developed and finalized during the remainder of this month, but will likely include some of the following: COVID symptom screenings for all visitors, the identification of high risk visitors, reduced visitation numbers, staggered visitation dates and times to allow for distancing of visitors at our facilities, and obviously, the utilization of face coverings while in our facilities along with the expansion of non-contact visitation throughout our correctional facilities. Governor, thank you.

Secretary Johnny Key (ADE)  22:23

Governor, thank you for acknowledging the hard work of our school administrators and teachers, students and the parents, support staff. They have done a great job as we near the end of the second week of school. Today I want to report there are two additional districts that have made modifications to their instruction Jacksonville -North Pulaski – Jacksonville middle school, they are moving to virtual for tomorrow, Friday, 9/4 and then are evaluating for what happens next week after they come back from Labor Day. But again, this is primarily due to the number of staff that may have that have to be quarantined. Earle Elementary School with Earle School District. They’ve had a situation where 50% of the staff at their elementary school, have had to be quarantine. And they are moving to virtual for the period from September 3rd through the 17th. It’s worthy to point out that over the last two weeks, we’ve had more students that have been impacted with weather issues than actually being out due to COVID. So just goes to show that the work that our districts have done to prepare for pivoting to virtual instruction has been very important for other reasons besides the pandemic. So they are again to be commended for their hard work.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  23:54

Thank you, Johnny. With that, we’ll take any questions.

Alex Burch – KATV  23:57

You said over the past couple days several times. college students, please be responsible take this seriously. What will you do if you see that they do not listen to you?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  24:07

Well, we will take the steps that are necessary in conjunction with the institution of higher education. There’s a lot of tools that they have to encourage good behavior or to take steps if there’s a congregate facility that’s a particular problem. So they are placing themselves. Whenever you have 24,000 students at one institution and 10s of thousands at others, that’s a lot to manage. And the biggest challenge, again, is what happens off campus over the holiday over the Labor Day weekend. And that’s where it’s not just what happens on campus, but happens off campus and there’s really nothing can be done about that except individual students that make the right decisions. And so   we’re trying to, as Dr. Fauci said, you know, this weekend’s going to determine a lot. We looked at, you know, Memorial weekend, you look at the July 4th weekend, which was not near as bad. But what will Labor Day weekend be like two weeks from now in terms of cases? That’s in the hands of those students, and we’re asking them to do act responsibly.

Andy Davis – ADG  25:23

Speaking of Dr. Fauci, I thought he listed Arkansas as being one of the states that’s at risk for significant surge in cases. Would you agree with that?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  25:33

Yes, I agree with that. I think it acknowledges that we have had cases that have not skyrocket in terms of the peak. But when he pointed out that if you have a increased positivity rate, that’s a sign that you’re headed in the wrong direction in trouble. Now, if you look at Washington County, you’ve got any crease positivity rate. Statewide, we’re still in the safer zone in positivity rate. We’re actually out of red and in yellow under the White House guidelines. So I think he was simply a warning for him. He’s not saying it’s going to happen. He’s saying pay attention. And so that’s the same message that we’re trying to reinforce here in Arkansas. This is a very critical time this weekend. It’s a critical time as to whether we go flat, whether we go down or whether we’re going to wind up going up because of increased activity and not following the guidelines. And so I’m glad he sounded that warning. We’re seconding that warning today.

Alex Burch – KATV  26:45

Does the 50% of staff at that Earle school having to quarantine does that indicate a lack of social distancing in that school?

Secretary Johnny Key (ADE)  26:59

From The information we have that appears to be connected with offs, out of school socialization. Does not appear to be connected with any type of in-school operations.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  27:13

Is there any question remotely?

Andrew DeMillo – AP  27:15

Yeah, Governor, this is Andrew with AP. I had a couple of questions. Going back to this the CDC letter that the state have received. Are you concerned at all about the about the timeline of this, at the possibility of this be motivated more more by politics, given the timing of this being right before the election and, and also want to see if Dr. Romero had any concerns about that as well in terms of the timing, and going back to U of A in the cases there is, is there any kind of mixed message that’s being sent to college students that we keep keep hearing that they need to avoid party, they need to avoid crowds and use self discipline. But we still have the bars over that open up there. Is that a mixed message at all? And are you, Are you open to the idea of closing bars or even looking at something targeted just to just to Fayetteville in that area?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  28:19

That’s good question. And let me address both of those. And I’ll ask Dr. Romero to talk further about the CDC letter. The letter came from Dr. Redfield I’ve visit with Dr. Redfield a number of occasions, he’s been the utmost professional. He values, his public health responsibility, and I have full confidence that whenever he says, let’s get ready, we need to get ready. So I take that at face value and in terms of timing, to me, the quicker the better. America wants a vaccine. We want obviously, to have this approved through FDA approval process. You’ve got FDA looking at it, you got CDC, but they’re they’re proceeding methodically. I mean, the fact that other nations have accelerated and, and already indicate that they have vaccines out there indicates that our timeframe is not bad. We have a more rigorous review process. So I have confidence in the CDC, Dr. Redfield and their communication to us. In terms of the University of Arkansas, or any college campus. No, I don’t believe that’s a mixed message, but it is a broad responsibility that a number of people can address, for example, you know, we’re saying that our restaurants are open, that we have bars that are open as well, but there are strict guidelines in place. We’re not allowing massive crowds in which they’re mixing up. There’s requirements in place that they have to socially distance and if they’re not drinking a beverage, they have to have a mask on. The staff has to do that we have our ABC enforcement out there to enforce that. And so I am calling on all of our establishment owners to help us.  It’s in your interest to make sure that our students are encouraged to do the right thing and that you’re you set the right example. And thus far, they’ve worked very, very hard at that. This weekend is a little bit more severe test with that, Dr. Romero.

Dr. Jose Romero  30:39

So I will limit my comments to the issue of safety of vaccines. We have throughout the process in which these vaccines have been brought forward through the testing process been reassured by the FDA that there will be no lessening of the stringency for safety of these vaccines. Both The VERPACK, which is the body that advises the FDA on on licensure of vaccines, and the body called the ACIP, which determines how to use the vaccine are clearly looking at the issue of safety. So all groups have focused on the issue of safety in addition to efficacy. But safety is paramount for this. And I think that all groups will not turn a blind eye if safety issues are, are coming to the fore. Thank you very much.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  31:37


Emma Claybrook – 40/29  31:39

Hi Governor Hutchinson, this is Emma Claybrook with 4029 News, I have another question about the U of A. Do the numbers in Washington County at the U of A make you reconsider supporting football with fans at the stadium? And at what point is that number of cases at U of A putting Arkansans and community in the community at risk?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  31:59

Well They’re not at risk if they follow the guidelines. And that’s what is, to me very important that if we’re going to have economic activity, if we’re going to have even social activity sports activities, we have guidelines in place that are designed if they’re followed to protect the public health. And so that’s what our concentration is. In reference to, you know, the athletic program and sports in the future, you know, it’s my understanding that there has not been any outbreak or even positive cases among the athletic community there. They really taking this seriously and doing what’s necessary. And whenever you’re looking at Razorback Stadium, you know, the attendance has strict requirements in place, not just wearing a mask, but the fans also have to socially distance. So there’s limitations in place are designed to allow a limit activity in terms of audience under safe conditions. We’ll always continue to evaluate it, but that’s where we are right now.

Neal Gladner  33:12

Hi, Governor, it’s Neal Gladner in Hot Springs back on the CDC letter. In some news coverage this morning. Some governors have talked about expenses that will be associated with that. You have a handle on that and if you’ll be able to use CARES money for that if there are expenses. And the second one, if you mentioned, Dr. Romero’s Chairman, one of the committees, could he maybe kind of give us a little bit more detail on his involvement in that from a medical standpoint.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  33:37

Sure. And in terms of the finances for it, it’s really difficult to determine we don’t have enough information. They simply said, you know, you might have to help the distribution in terms of the building of facilities. I don’t even know if that’s necessary, because we already have a distribution network. I think the big Question is the storage and how we’re going to store that if the vaccines have particular storage requirements. But we don’t have those details yet, so it’s hard to know the investment. But we including the General Assembly, wisely reserved $250 million of our CARES Act funding, so that we would be prepared for vaccine distribution. So we have our money set aside for that purpose from an expense standpoint. And so I, I think the biggest thing, we need more information before we know exactly the next step we need to take.

Dr. Jose Romero  34:43

So if I understand the question correctly, it is what is my involvement with one of the two committees that I mentioned?

Neal Gladner  34:49

So what that committee does,

Dr. Jose Romero  34:51

Yes, sir. So, I am the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. It is the committee that is determines the use of vaccines after they have been licensed. That is it determines which groups are the most appropriate to receive vaccines. We’re comprised of non-governmental voting members. There’s 15 of us from different areas involved in vaccinology. I’ve been on the committee and now for six years going into my seventh year, four years as a as a regular voting member, three years as a chairman and two years as vice chairman. It’s the only non-governmental agency that makes, if you will, or issues, recommendations for policy. Our recommendations go to the director of the CDC, who then either approves of them or rejects them, and they are published in the morbidity and mortality weekly report. Once they are reported, once they report are published in them, then they the vaccine cost is covered by various agencies and insurance companies. So it’s an important agency for the the the distribution sorry for the identification of which populations are important to receive vaccine. Thank you.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  36:09

We’re fortunate to have our Secretary of Health on that key National Committee. So thank you for your leadership on that. Next question.

Andy Davis – ADG  36:20

Other than the U of A, are there any other colleges where this is a problem?.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  36:26

We’ve had a number of cases at UAPB. And the Department of Health is enhanced their testing availability and special testing events there at UAPB. So that’s how they’re addressing that. And you’ve got to remember back whenever we had in Northwest Arkansas, other outbreaks in the Marshalese population in the poultry industry, we really got in there and identified the cases that did our contact tracing and we got that under control. It took us a while, but we got that under control. So, you know, even though we’re having this spike of cases, the design is that we get in there, we isolate, we do our contact tracing, and you know, we avoid the spread of that even in that higher education community. So we’ve got our resources in place, but we want to make sure that the other institutions are covered as well. And, and those are the two that I would mention. All right, yes. Final question.

Alex Burch – KATV  37:37

Is there anything you can tell us sbout this cluster of deaths in the Mississippi County nursing home, what kind of contributed to this cluster or the disease getting into the nursing home?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  37:47

We don’t have any more details on that other than it was that number in that particular setting. With that, thank you for your attention today. Tomorrow, by the way, we’ll be in White County. We’ll be doing the broadcast from Searcy. Give us an opportunity to see that community, listen to them and to give our report statewide. Thank you.