COVID-19

Two Saline County School districts have issued statements in the wake of the first known case of COVID-19 being confirmed in the state.

Also known as the coronavirus, COVID-19 has been rapidly spreading across the globe and has now been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

“At Bryant Schools, we take the safety and well-being of our students and staff very seriously,” a statement said. “With the report of the first presumptive case of COVID-19 in the state of Arkansas, we understand our parents’ concerns and want to provide as much information as possible. Please understand that our state health organization is the lead and authority regarding decisions related to COVID-19.”

The statement also said that school officials have not been given information regarding any students and/or staff being exposed to the virus.

“Bryant Schools monitor and follow recommendations from the Arkansas Health Department and the Arkansas Department of Education to ensure we are protecting our students and staff,” the statement continued. “Parents are asking about travel over spring break. We are waiting on guidance from the Arkansas Department of Health and the Arkansas Department of Education. We will provide updates as we receive information.”

The statement also gave tips on ways to help prevent infection.

“As with any contagious disease, the best approach is prevention,” the statement said. “Recommendations include avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth; cover coughs and sneezes; cough into elbow; clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces; and wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. In situations like these, rumors may cause unnecessary reactions and panic. Therefore, we encourage you to get information from credible sources. The Arkansas Department of Health publishes daily updates online.”

The Benton School District also released a statement regarding the growing concern.

“We are aware of the health concerns due to the confirmation of the first Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) case in Pine Bluff, Arkansas,” the statement said. “We will continue to review and improve plans to protect our students and staff. We will also continue to prepare for, if the need warrants, the use of alternate methods of learning.”

The district also stated that it would continue to monitor the situation based on information from the Department of Health and recommendations from Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We encourage students and staff to wash hands and wipe down surfaces,” the statement said. “These are safety precautions that should be in place at all times, we are all just more aware during a time such as this.”

The Arkansas Activities Association has no current plans to suspend activities, according to a statement issued Wednesday.

“At this time, the AAA (high school basketball) state championships will be hosted as scheduled,” the statement said. “The AAA is working closely with the Arkansas Department of Education, the governor’s office and the Arkansas Department of Health to ensure all appropriate steps are taken during the finals."

The AAA also stated that it is working on conjunction with the HotSprings Convention Center to ensure the facility is sanitized and cleaned before every session.

“Both parties are being proactive to ensure the safety of our players, coaches, officials and fans,” the statement said. “The AAA website and social media platforms are the best sources for information pertaining to the upcoming state championship events.”

In nationwide sports, NBA officials announced late Wednesday that the regular season has been suspended after the Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert was diagnosed as a positive for having COVID-19.

Utah's game against Oklahoma City on Wednesday night was canceled and the Detroit Pistons are among five teams that have played the Jazz — and Gobert — since the start of March, the others being Boston, Toronto, New York and Cleveland.

“The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic,” the league said in a statement.

Gobert recently joked about the virus during a press conference as he backed away from a table filled with reporter recorders before laughing and eventually touching everything on the table.

Also happening Wednesday, NCAA officials announced it will continue with its March Madness schedule, but will play all games without fans in the stands.

Only essential staff and limited family will be allowed to attend the upcoming NCAA basketball tournaments, draining the signature school spirit from one of the biggest events on the sports calendar, according to NCAA President Mark Emmert.

The 68-team men's tournament is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine has announced plans to ban “mass gatherings” to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“It will have a different feel but it will still be highly competitive, and the kids will still play like there's no tomorrow,” said Bill Self, the coach of the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. “They'll make the most of it. We'll make the most of it.”

Also, upcoming NHL games scheduled for Columbus, Ohio, and San Jose, California, and college basketball tournaments for the Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Atlantic 10 and American Athletic conferences will be played without fans.

In Major League Baseball, the league announced Wednesday that the Mariners will move their home games in March out of Seattle, the U.S. city hardest-hit by the outbreak; the team and league have not decided whether the games will be played at the opponent's ballpark or a neutral site.

The Athletics announced they are working on alternate plans for their season-opening series at the Coliseum after the City of Oakland imposed a ban on gatherings of 1,000 or more people through the end of March. The team hasn't said whether it was considering a different location for the games or playing in an empty ballpark.

On Wednesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the state's first presumptive case of the novel coronavirus.

The patient, who is in Pine Bluff, recently traveled out of state and has now been isolated at an area hospital.

A presumptive case means the person has tested positive in the state and the test results have been sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation.

Hutchinson said he will declare a public health emergency.

"Essential state services will continue in the event that the coronavirus is beyond what we see right now in our state," Hutchinson said. "At current time, there's no need to do all our work remotely. There's no need to disrupt our state services. Our business will continue as usual."

Hutchinson has restricted out-of-state travel for state employees for 60 days. Travel for state business without the approval of a cabinet secretary will not be allowed. He also recommended that members of the public reconsider traveling out of state especially to areas with confirmed cases of the virus.

Employees will not be allowed to travel for state business without the approval of a cabinet secretary. Hutchinson also urged the public reconsider traveling out of state, especially to areas that have confirmed cases of the virus.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health, as of Wednesday, 111 people in the state were being monitored for the virus. There are 14 people under investigation for the virus, which means they are showing symptoms of the virus. The virus causes fever and coughing and in serious cases, it causes shortness of breath or pneumonia.

In the United States, more than 1,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed and 31 have died. A long-term care facility in Washington is believed to be at the center of the outbreak in the U.S.

More than 115,000 cases of the viruses and 4,200 deaths have been reported globally.

Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff is restricting access after a presumptive case of coronavirus was announced.

Visitors have been asked to enter the building through the main entrance on 40th Avenue or through the emergency department. They will be screened for symptoms prior to entering and will be required to have a patient name to enter. The hospital has also suspended elective procedures. The patient was reported to be in stable condition and caregivers were wearing protective gear.

The Pine Bluff's mayor's office directed all requests for comment to police.

Some schools in the state have closed due to virus concerns, including Pulaski Academy, University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College and University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Even though at this time there has not been any reported cases of coronavirus in Arkansas, staff at Saline Memorial Hospital say they are prepared to treat patients with the dangerous virus, as reported in a recent issue of The Saline Courier.

Melissa Green, infection preventionist at the hospital, said staff have not treated anyone with 2019-nCoV, commonly known as coronavirus, but that "Saline Memorial Hospital stands ready."

"We're trained and prepared to handle outbreaks. This is just part of what we do," Green said.

According to Green, medical personnel at the hospital are working with the local and state health department, as well as the Centers for Disease Control, to continue to monitor the situation.

Green said there are actually seven different types of coronavirus with four common types being relativity mild.

Since symptoms are similar to a common cold, a person could have had coronavirus and thought he had a cold, she added.

Three strands of coronavirus, including the newest 2019 novel coronavirus, are rare.

"This virus probably originally emerged from an animal source, but now seems to be spreading from person-to-person. It’s important to note that person-to-person spread can happen on a continuum. Some viruses are highly contagious (like measles), while other viruses are less so. At this time, it’s unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people," according to the CDC.

The virus was first identified in Wuhan Hubei Province, China, and the first infection in the United States was reported Jan. 21.

It is a standard operating protocol for staff at SMH to ask a person's travel history since that could be a factor for several diseases.  

At the hospital, protective equipment as well as face masks and eye wear are available for staff and visitors, Green added.

She stressed that Saline County residents should be more concerned about influenza.

Green also spoke about the importance for people to washing their hands, using hand sanitizers and staying home when they are sick.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced a 30-day travel ban from Europe to the U.S.

Trump, in a rare Oval Office address to the nation, said the monthlong restriction on travel would begin late Friday, at midnight. After days of playing down the coronavirus threat, he blamed Europe for not acting quickly enough to address the “foreign virus” and claimed that U.S. clusters were “seeded” by European travelers.

“We made a lifesaving move with early action on China," Trump said. "Now we must take the same action with Europe.”

Trump said the restrictions won't apply to the United Kingdom, and there would be exemptions for “Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings." He said the U.S. would monitor the situation to determine if travel could be reopened earlier.

The State Department followed Trump's remarks by issuing an extraordinary global health advisory cautioning U.S. citizens to “reconsider travel abroad” due to the virus and associated quarantines and restrictions.

Trump spoke after days of confusion in Washington and in the face of mounting calls on the president to demonstrate greater leadership. At times, though, his remarks contributed to the uncertainty.

While Trump said all European travel would be cut off, Homeland Security officials later clarified that the new travel restrictions would apply only to most foreign nationals who have been in the "Schengen Area" at any point for 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the United States. The area includes France, Italy, German, Greece, Austria, Belgium and others, and the White House said the zone has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases outside of mainland China.

The restrictions don't apply to legal permanent residents, immediate family of U.S. citizens or others "identified in the proclamation" signed by Trump. Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday on ABC's “Good Morning America” that the Trump administration is also requesting travelers returning to the U.S. from Europe to “voluntarily quarantine” for 14 days.

Trump said the prohibitions would "not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things." But the official proclamation released after Trump spoke made clear it applies to people, not goods and cargo.

The Oval Office address represented an abrupt shift in tone from a president who has repeatedly sought to play down the severity of the virus outbreak. Many Americans shared a similar mindset in recent weeks, but the grueling events of Wednesday changed the mood: Communities canceled public events nationwide, universities moved to cancel in-person classes, and families grappled with the impact of disruptions to public schools.

Even as Trump spoke from behind the Resolute Desk, the pandemic’s ferocious rewriting of American daily life continued. The National Basketball Association suspended its season, and Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for COVID-19. The first confirmed case on Capitol Hill was reported in a legislative staffer.

After Trump spoke, the White House cancelled a planned trip by the president to Nevada and Colorado this week, “out of an abundance of caution." Trump's re-election campaign also postponed a planned March 19 event in Milwaukee that was set to feature the president.

After a week of mixed messages and false starts, and as government officials warned in increasingly urgent terms that the outbreak in the U.S. will only get worse, Washington suddenly seemed poised to act.

Congress unveiled a multibillion-dollar aid package Wednesday that was expected to be voted on by the House as soon as Thursday.

"I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said in testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. He said the virus is "10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”

S&P 500 futures went from a loss of about 0.4% before Trump spoke to a decline of 1.5% afterwards. The decline in the futures market followed a steep 4.9% drop in regular trading Wednesday. Wall Street investors are increasingly concerned that the Trump administration and other governments won’t be able to do enough to prevent the virus outbreak from causing significant damage to the global economy.

After Trump’s address, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced a series of moves, including restrictions for 60 days on travel by servicemembers, Defense Department civilians and their families to, from and through the four counties currently designated by the Centers for Disease Control as the highest risk COVID-19 counties — China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.

More information about the virus is available at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/index.html.