WATCH: Governor, ADH: COVID-19 cases still tracking below projections

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The death toll from coronavirus in Arkansas stands at 16 with 830 positive cases in the state, Governor Asa Hutchinson announced in a Sunday, April 5th news conference. The governor was joined by Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith as they released the latest information on the impact of COVID-19 in the state. Additional details they provided:

Gov. Asa Hutchinson confirmed Sunday that 14 of the 87 new COVID-19 cases reported statewide Sunday are at the federal correctional facility in Forrest City. Hutchinson said eight inmates have tested positive there, with another 15 to 20 showing symptoms that will be tested Sunday.

Four staff members at the prison tested positive, with another ten to 15 also being tested. The governor said the CDC has been invited to come help the state help them at the facility, and that a team is expected to arrive early this week.

Hutchinson said steps are being taken to protect inmates and that there are no plans to release them due to the coronavirus unless the situation changes and there is an outbreak. He also emphasized that Forrest City is a federal corrections facility and that there have not been any outbreaks reported at any state corrections facilities.

As of Sunday, a total of 830 coronavirus cases were reported in Arkansas, with 16 deaths. The number of new cases represents the state’s largest single daily increase, according to Dr. Nate Smith with the Arkansas Department of Health.

The ADH website indicates 96 people have recovered from the virus, and that 11,142 tests have been completed by state and commercial labs. 64 counties are now reporting cases, with the addition of Yell and Phillips to the list, but Smith said it should be assumed that there are cases in every county.

Both Hutchinson and Smith once again noted that the spread of the virus in the state so far does not appear to be on the trajectory projected by modeling a few weeks ago and not as hard hit thus far as other areas around the country, but emphasized the importance of social distancing and encouraged Arkansans to follow guidelines issued by the federal government on Friday.

“We started early and our trendline is different from what you’re seeing in hot spots,” Hutchinson said. “We’re hoping to ekeep the trendline we have now. If we can, we’re not going to see the explosive grown and death that you’re seeing in other states.”

“This is a critial week,” Smith added. “It’s critical for us to continue to do the things that we know we need to do in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Hutchinson himself vowed to follow the CDC’s guidance on wearing masks, holding up a mask he said he will be using when appropriate and conditions for social distancing are not ideal. At this point, Smith says, more than 500 of the ventilators in the state’s medical facilities remain available if needed. “So we can absorb some increase.

If we have more than that, though, we will still need to obtain additional vents and take other actions to take care of those patients.” In the meantime, the state is exploring the possibility of forming a coalition of governors in order to better coordinate efforts to obtain the critical medical equipment in short supply around the country, if needed.

A statewide COVID-19 relief fund was also announced Sunday, created in partnership between the state and the Arkansas Community Foundation. The relief fund will provide rapid-response grants to nonprofit organizations working on the front linesto help those most affected by the pandemic. ARCF Director Heather Larkin said the critical funding will enable them to maintain operations and support the increased demand for services.

A number of foundations have already committed millions of dollars to the fund, including the Walmart Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Entergy Arkansas also affirmed that they will be suspending disconnections for non-payment, and the utilitie’s charitable foundation has endowed the Arkansas Community Foundation with $100,000 to help in the response to the pandemic.

When asked why the state has allowed churches the option to continue offering services, Hutchinson said it was because “churches by and large do the right thing. They want to protect their parishoners.”

Hutchinson said every church he is aware of has moved to online services, noting that he attended one himself earlier in the day. “There are a few that have a very small attendance and they socially distance.

We don’t recommend that, but it’s within the guidelines and that’s understandable,” said Hutchinson. Still, with Easter coming, both Hutchinson and Dr. Smith offered a reminder of what is at risk. “One of the largest outbreaks in Arkansas was through a church-related service and a gathering of people, so the gathering of people is what you’ve got to be careful of.”

Watch the video above.

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