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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday called on Arkansans “to set the right example for others” in social distancing. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

The number of coronavirus cases statewide has risen by 190, to 7,443, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday.

The pace of growth is slower than last week's rate, but it still causes concern, the governor said at a public briefing held at Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers. The largest daily increase so far, outside the prison population, was 261 on Thursday. Only three of the 190 new cases reported Monday are in prisons.

"What's driving these numbers in the state is Northwest Arkansas," the governor said of recent increases. State figures show 53 of the new cases are in Washington County and 29 are in Benton County.

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Of the 121 hospitalized for the covid-19 disease, 45 are in Northwest Arkansas, he said. That figure of 121 is an increase of six from Sunday. He added that hospital space remains more than adequate in Northwest Arkansas despite the disproportionate number there, but "it's something we need to get a handle on."

The number of deaths reported at Monday's briefing remained unchanged at 133, Hutchinson said. However, Sebastian County had its first covid-19 death a little more than an hour before the 1 p.m. briefing began, county Coroner Kenny Hobbs confirmed.

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A 63-year-old Hispanic man died just before noon Monday, according to Hobbs, who said he couldn't release the man's name late Monday pending notification of next of kin. The man, a Fort Smith resident, was admitted to a hospital Tuesday. He died in the intensive care unit, Hobbs said.

The governor went to Northwest Arkansas on Monday to underscore a recent jump in new cases of covid-19 in the region. He also met with local leaders at a hospital conference room before the briefing. Those leaders told him that people are increasingly lax about safeguards to prevent the virus's spread.

"It's not a matter of the policies in place. It's cabin fever," Mayor Greg Hines of Rogers told the governor. People in Northwest Arkansas followed guidelines for weeks, largely staying at home, and saw very few cases of coronavirus in their area -- until now.

The governor's home is in Rogers. For weeks, the region enjoyed very low levels of the disease, casting doubt on the need for the restrictions on large gatherings and other safeguards, Hutchinson said.

Dr. Nate Smith, state health secretary, said last week during Hutchinson's daily news briefing that covid-19 cases are rapidly increasing in the Hispanic community, particularly in Northwest Arkansas. The trend continues, he said Monday at the briefing.

Smith detailed the disproportionate numbers, noting 43% of the new cases in Benton and Washington counties are in the Hispanic community. In Benton County, 27% of the Hispanic cases were poultry workers, Smith said.

The Hispanic population comprises 16.9% of Benton County residents and 17.1% of Washington County, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Of the 571 poultry workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began, 73% are Hispanic, according to figures reported at the briefing.

Hutchinson said he spoke earlier in the day with leaders from the Marshallese and Hispanic communities about the increase in cases in the Northwest region.

Margarita Solorzano, director of the Hispanic Women of Arkansas, attended the earlier meeting, she said. She emphasized to the governor the lack of Spanish language and culturally effective procedures and material to reach those populations.

The state is having to come up with its own material and approaches because the needs of minority-group communities aren't even mentioned in material the state is getting from the federal government, she said.

Mireya Reith, executive director of Arkansas United, a migrant-rights group based in Springdale, said she was one of five community leaders who met for about an hour with the governor; Smith and Jose Romero with the Health Department; and Steuart Walton, chairman of the governor's Economic Recovery Task Force.

She said she was grateful Hutchinson made time to meet, given the pandemic and protests concerning George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minnesota. But Reith said she walked away from the meeting not knowing what the state's next steps would be.

"We're going to need some urgent action. Listening is a first step, and I don't want to dismiss it as not proactive, but it falls short of an actual next step and a plan of action," she said.

She and the minority-group community leaders stressed that many members of their communities must go to work and risk catching the virus regardless of whether there is an outbreak at their workplace.

"They did express a lot of optimism in regards to employers. I don't know if that same optimism is shared all the way down to the workers," Reith said.

Smith said Monday that the Northwest region is behind the state average in the numbers tested. The populous region is actively testing, but those tests have, so far, not caught up with the state average per 10,000 people. Northwest Arkansas has had 281 people tested for the virus out of every 10,000 people. The state average is 442, Smith said. This is true even though Benton County is close to the state average.

The state cannot trace where the disease is coming from and where it is spreading in the region until more people are tested, Smith said. That will show what he called "chains of transmission."

Overall, the state tested 80,808 people in May, according to Hutchinson. The state's goal was 60,000.

There are 985 active cases in Northwest Arkansas, Smith said. Of those, 608 are in Benton County, he said.

What role poultry plants play in the outbreak is unknown because not enough testing has been done, Smith said. More than 100 new cases last week were found among poultry workers across the state, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

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The spike in cases among poultry workers prompted protests last week, including demonstrations Friday at four plants owned by Cargill, George's and Tyson Foods. The protests were organized by the poultry worker-rights group Venceremos.

Smith said Monday that the tracking isn't sufficient to show where workers are contracting the virus. He did praise the cooperation of food processing companies in their efforts to track the workers' cases.

Hutchinson praised the steps taken by the poultry industry in the region, saying Tyson Foods now tests every worker and Simmons Foods also tests all applicants.

"They have really set a national model for best practices for the poultry industry" nationwide, he said.

But Magaly Licolli, co-founder of Venceremos, said the governor's remarks show he doesn't speak directly with any of the workers on the floor of these processing plants. Workers have insight into how the plants could be operated with greater safety, and the solutions they could propose aren't being heard, she said.

She wasn't included in the Hispanic and Marshallese representatives' meeting despite her repeated requests, she said.

"He's only listening to the companies," Licolli said.'

Of those diagnosed in Arkansas with covid-19 since the pandemic spread to the United States in March, 1,909 cases are active, according to briefing figures. Seventy-eight of those active cases are in nursing homes. Another 53 are in prisons. Six of the 190 new cases are health care workers. Seven are nursing home residents. Eight are nursing home staff members.

Among active cases, 26 are on ventilators, a decrease of one, according to figures presented at the briefing.

Meanwhile, local governments are supposed to receive a share of the assistance provided to states for covid-19 response, and nationwide that is not happening, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., told the governor at the meeting at the hospital.

Legislation is about to be introduced in Congress, "and I may co-sponsor it, demanding 25% of that money be returned if it isn't distributed to local governments," the lawmaker from Rogers said.

Hutchinson answered that the money was legally restricted for spending only for coronavirus-related expenses, but it includes no system for ensuring that once the state distributes it to cities and counties. Womack agreed that he had heard of this problem and that the federal government was working on putting procedures in place.

"We're not going to spend all the money until that is worked out," Hutchinson assured Womack.

Information for this article was contributed by Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 06/02/2020

Print Headline: NW region is focus in virus efforts

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