• Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Ginny Monk

State deaths rise 3, to 76; legislators strike $55M aid deal

The three additional covid-19 deaths announced Sunday were all associated with congregate settings -- one was a nursing home resident in Jefferson County, and two were inmates from the Cummins Unit being treated at hospitals.


The total number of deaths in the state reached 76 Sunday. Cumulative cases were at 3,431 with 1,999 recovered, according to state health data.


State legislators from the House and Senate also reached an agreement Sunday to approve appropriations for $55 million in grants for small businesses affected by the pandemic. That's $40 million in addition to the $15 million Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced last week.


One of the Cummins inmates was being treated at the Jefferson Regional Medical Center and the other was at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center. Both had preexisting health conditions and one was on a ventilator, according to a news release from the Arkansas Department of Corrections.


That brings the total number of coronavirus deaths at the Cummins Unit to four -- two others died Saturday. The unit has become a hot spot with 860 inmates and 54 staffers infected, according to data from the state health department.

The nursing home resident who died was associated with the Waters of White Hall, said Meg Mirivel, an Arkansas Department of Health spokeswoman. The nursing home has had nine deaths. There were 35 residents and 26 staff members infected as of Sunday, according to state data.


The death at Waters of White Hall raises the total number of nursing home deaths to 29.


Spread of the coronavirus through "congregate settings" has long been a concern for health officials and experts on both the state and national level.


The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put out several sets of guidelines for controlling the spread of the virus in nursing homes, prisons, homeless shelters and other settings in which people share housing.


The first case of covid-19 at the Cummins Unit was detected in mid-April. The virus rapidly spread through the 1,800-bed facility.


One of the inmates who died Sunday morning was serving a 30-year sentence, and the other was serving life without parole, according to a Department of Corrections news release.


"I think part of what this is exposing is the ways in which the prison system is not designed to actually protect the health and well-being of people on the inside," said Zachary Crow, executive director of DecARcerate, a grassroots group focused on advocating for the rights of prisoners and against mass incarceration.

Inmates at three state prisons filed a federal class-action lawsuit last month that seeks to force the release of elderly and medically frail inmates from prisons and get them better access to disinfectants.


Hutchinson said during Saturday's news briefing that the state had released 380 offenders since the public health crisis started. None were violent offenders and all were within six months of their release dates.


A third inmate also died Sunday, although officials don't believe his death was related to covid-19. The inmate passed out in front of prison staff and was taken to the infirmary where he was soon pronounced dead, said Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.


"It was a sudden thing," Graves said.


The department has requested an autopsy to determine the cause and manner of the third inmate's death, the news release states.


Six Cummins inmates were hospitalized as of Sunday evening. Two were on ventilators and one was in an on-site ward, Mirivel said.


Additionally, some inmates set a fire in a trash can, broke windows and dumped trash on the floor in one Cummins Unit barracks on Saturday, Graves said.

There were no injuries and minimal damage to the facility, he added.


The Cummins Unit is the only state prison with inmate cases. But a handful of state prisons have staff members who tested positive, including the Wrightsville Unit, Barbara Ester Unit, East Arkansas Regional Unit and Grimes Unit, according to state data.


The Central Arkansas Community Correction Center had 63 inmate and 27 staff infections as of Sunday. At least 135 inmates and 13 staff members at the federal correctional institute in Forrest City have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Despite precautions taken early on by nursing homes across the state, infections have risen at the homes, where many are particularly vulnerable to serious infection because of their ages and preexisting health conditions. The virus has touched at least three dozen nursing homes statewide.


In an interview in March, when interventions such as limiting visitation were first taking place at long-term care facilities, Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association, pointed to an example in Washington state where a covid-19 outbreak caused at least 29 deaths.


"We're trying to prevent anything like that from happening in Arkansas," she said at the time.


Among homes with the most resident cases Sunday were: Walnut Ridge Nursing and Rehabilitation Center with 52 cases, Briarwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center with 43 cases, Waters of White Hall with 35 cases, The Lakes of Maumelle Health and Rehabilitation with 31 cases, and Willow Bend Healthcare and Rehabilitation with 28 cases.


All of these also had staff cases that each topped 15.


The chairmen of the state Legislative Council and its peer subcommittee agreed Sunday to appropriate more money for businesses to use to protect the health of their employees and customers -- purchasing personal protective equipment, for example. The agreement sets aside 75% of the money for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees and 15% for female or minority-owned businesses, said Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, a Republican from Sulphur Springs.

The website is set to go live to accept applications Tuesday and Wednesday, Hendren said Sunday.


The Legislative Council will meet later in the week to review the program and analyze any need for more money, said House Speaker Matthew Shepherd on Sunday.


All use of funds from the program will be audited to ensure the money was used for its intended purpose, Hendren said.


The program -- Arkansas Ready for Business -- was launched prematurely Wednesday, without the required approval of legislative leaders. After it was rolled out, more than 2,300 businesses applied for over $36 million in aid.


"We wanted to make sure that we had enough to at least take care of those that had already applied, but also to allow for a process for those that weren't aware of it to have an opportunity to apply," he added.