Governor announces task force as virus infections continue to increase

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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday announced the formation of a task force to combat rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this winter.

The task force, created by executive order, will investigate, advise and make recommendations to the governor on matters related to the virus. The Arkansas Department of Health will continue to be the lead agency in the state fight against the pandemic.

The announcement came as the governor announced record-high numbers in new cases with 2,312 on Friday and hospitalizations at 826.

“We continue to see a record number of COVID-19 cases, and as winter approaches, we must take this head-on with a strategy that is medically sound and data-driven,” Hutchinson said. “This will ensure that we are combating COVID-19 with the best resources to limit the spread and mitigate the impact of the virus while we wait for a vaccine.”

Among the areas the task force will examine, Hutchinson said, are items like relaxed rules on quarantine for hospital workers to reduce staffing issues, measures to help hospitals retain workers being recruited to leave for positions in other states, and others.

The new group will explore and make recommendations on four topics: Better coordination of the COVID caseload statewide; ways the state can assist in increasing staff resources; ways to increase mask compliance; and other ways to reduce case count and burden on hospitals.

The task force will be made up of state officials and hospital administrators, including Greg Bledsoe, Arkansas Surgeon General; Dr. José Romero, Secretary of Arkansas Department of Health; Larry Shackelford, President and CEO of Washington Regional Medical Center; Chris Barber, President and CEO of St. Bernard’s Healthcare; Scott Street, CEO of Medical Center of South Arkansas; Dr. Cam Patterson, Chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; Rachel Bunch, Executive Director of Arkansas Health Care Association; Bo Ryall, President and CEO of Arkansas Hospital Association; Troy Wells, President and CEO of Baptist Health; Ryan Gehrig, President of Mercy Hospital; Major General Kendall Penn, Adjutant General, Arkansas National Guard; A.J. Gary, Director of Arkansas Department of Emergency Management; Phillip Gilmore, CEO of Ashley County Medical Center; Dr. Steven Collier, CEO of ARcare; Ron Peterson, President and CEO of Baxter County Regional Medical Center; Dr. Jerrilyn Jones, Arkansas Department of Health; Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, Arkansas Department of Health; Dr. Naveen Patil, Arkansas Department of Health; and Dr. Keyur Vyas, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The group will hold their first meeting on Monday, Nov. 16 via Zoom. It will not be a public meeting, the governor said.

The governor said he will allocate $1.6 million for an advertising campaign to promote educational efforts to curb the pandemic this winter.

Hutchinson also announced that he has authorized 30 members of the National Guard to assist the Department of Health with case investigation.

The governor continued to resist calls for additional restrictions on gatherings or shutdowns.

“The emphasis has to be on what works nationally,” he said. “Everyone is saying, from Dr. Fauci all the way through, wear your mask, socially distance, watch the Thanksgiving gatherings.

“There’s really a greater sense that that is where the heart of the challenge is, is complying with simple public health guidelines. If we do that, we don’t have to take any other steps there.”