Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday said Arkansas will double its contact tracing efforts and further increase testing as the total of statewide positive COVID-19 cases increased by 697 to 17,375.
The governor said he plans to seek an additional $22 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to hire 350 more contact tracers for a total of 700 workers whose job is to contact those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and identify who they might have exposed to the virus.
The goal is to cut off chains of infection by notifying those who were exposed to the virus and to encourage them to isolate themselves to prevent additional transmission of COVID-19.
“Hopefully that will be more than sufficient,” said the governor. “But right now we have an insufficient capacity to do the job that we need to in terms of contact tracing.”
Hutchinson said the CARES Act steering committee will make the final decision, but the hope is to have the first round of new contact tracers on the job by mid-July. As for the full 700, he said it could take some time to hire and train that many new staffers.
“It’s going to be essential whether it’s now or it’s in the fall,” he said.
Along with that news, Hutchinson said the state’s goal for July is to conduct 180,000 tests.
The Health Department set a goal of 60,000 tests in May and surpassed that by nearly 21,000. The department doubled the goal to 120,000 in June and passed that mark on Monday, just over a week ahead of schedule. Hutchinson said the statewide testing total for the month was at 125,002 after another 7,374 tests were conducted since Tuesday.
Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said hospitalizations reached a new high of 267 on Tuesday after an additional 19 people were admitted with COVID-19. Smith said there are 58 patients currently on a ventilator, which is an increase of one from Tuesday.
Three more people died from the virus overnight bringing the overall statewide death toll to 240.
Smith said at least 43 of the new cases were from correctional facilities, but it’s likely there are many more because there were 168 new cases reported in Hot Spring County where the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Ouachita River Unit is located.
“I don’t have addresses on those yet, but I suspect most or all of those are in the correctional facility,” said Smith.
As for other areas with new cases, Washington County reported 79, Benton County had 67, Pulaski County had 51, Sebastian County had 40, Faulkner County had 29, and both Yell and Columbia counties had 26. All other counties reported less than 20 new cases.
Hutchinson said the state plans to hold three more surge testing events in Washington and Benton counties in the coming weeks.
More graphs from Wednesday