All indoor gatherings of more than 10 people will officially be banned by a directive that Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced during his news conference Wednesday.
"My goal of these updates is to let everyone know the challenge that we face, but also what we are doing as a state to address those and to plan for those," Hutchinson said. "And to talk about what the public can do in terms of their responsibility."
The coming directive to no longer allow gatherings of more than 10 is in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The state has been encouraging the public to abide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance to avoid groups. Hutchinson said any exceptions to that guidance endangers the public so it will become a directive, which will have enforcement capabilities behind it. The Arkansas Department of Health will work on the language for the directive.
He stressed that he does not have to put a shelter in place order as other states have done. This directive is a way to help avoid it.
Hutchinson announced he signed the proclamation for the special session of the General Assembly that will convene today at 1 p.m.
"I am very grateful for the leadership of the House and Senate," he said.
Hutchinson said the state is grateful for the work of nurses, doctors and other medical professionals. He understands that as this pandemic continues they will get tired or need to isolate and there will be a shortage that needs to be filled.
He asked the medical board to expedite licensing for those doctors who have completed one year of internship and wave all fees. So far, 15 have applied for expedited licensing. In March, more than 100 new licenses for doctors have been processed.
He also asked the nursing board to speed the licensing process. In March, 300 new nurses have been licensed.
"I appreciate the medical board, nursing board and other licensing boards," he said.
For nurses who have been laid off while elective procedures are not being done, Hutchinson encouraged them to reach out to the board for referrals where they can work.
As of the conference, there were 280 positive cases of COVID-19. Drew and Hot Spring counties were added to the list of affected areas as well. Hutchinson feels with the addition of commercial lab tests and increased capacity at the Department of Health and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the numbers are showing a more accurate picture of the pandemic in the state.
During the conference, Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith broke the numbers down. Of that 280, 13 were children, 94 were 65 and older and 173 were ages 19 to 64. There are currently 12 individuals hospitalized, four of which are on ventilators.
As of press time, there were 310 positive cases, with 12 recoveries and still two deaths. 1,814 tests have been completed with 1,504 returning negative.
Nationwide, 69,197 positive cases have been confirmed with 619 recoveries and 1,046 deaths.
Smith said the department prioritizes healthcare workers, those who are high risk, those 65 and older and those in long-term care facilities for testing.
When going out, Smith said to be mindful of public places and avoid clumping together.
"You don't have to be crowded together to be in a public space," he said.
During this time, Smith encouraged the public to reach out to friends and family members through phone calls and online contact, especially older people.
Hutchinson reported 9,000 people had filed for unemployment last week and 8,700 have so far this week. He urges patients because the system was not designed to handle so many at once. The state is upgrading the system to be more efficient but phone wait times are still 25 minutes.
"This volume is unprecedented in our history," Hutchinson said.
Secretary of Veteran Fairs Col. Nate Todd wanted veterans to know that veteran medical centers are a resource during the pandemic. They can call or use online access to be screened and be treated if needed.
Hutchinson continues to hold news conferences daily to update the public.
Visit www.salinecourier.com for updates regarding the pandemic throughout the day.