Arkansas’ health chief announces departure as virus surges
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas’ top health official said Tuesday he will step down this summer, but that he has no disagreement with the governor’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, even as new cases continued to rise.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Dr. Nathaniel Smith, the state’s health secretary, is leaving Aug. 28 for a job with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hutchinson said Dr. Jose Romero, the department’s chief medical officer, will be the health department’s interim head.
Smith’s decision comes days after Hutchinson said the state was seeing a “second peak” of coronavirus cases. The state last week reported a new one-day high of new virus cases. The number of active virus cases — excluding those who have recovered or died — has steadily increased since setting a new high on Friday.
Arkansas was among a handful of states that did not issue a stay-at-home order during the pandemic, but had other restrictions in place that the state has been rolling back over the past few weeks. The moves allowed restaurant dining rooms, gyms, barber shops, theaters and other businesses to reopen.
Freestanding bars were allowed to resume service on Tuesday, while swimming pools and water parks reopened Friday.
Smith said he had “absolutely no disagreement” with the governor’s approach to the pandemic.
“Working for the governor has been one of the highlights of my career, and it made it very difficult to make this decision,” Smith said at a briefing with Hutchinson. Smith will become the CDC’s deputy director for public health service and implementation science.
Former Gov. Mike Beebe, Hutchinson’s Democratic predecessor, named Smith head of the department in 2013. He’s held near-daily briefings with Hutchinson about the virus since Arkansas reported its first cases in March.
“He stayed on the facts,” Republican Rep. Jack Ladyman, the chairman of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, said of Smith.
Smith told Hutchinson of his plans to step down in a letter dated May 21. He told the governor he planned to continue serving through July 17 and then use his accumulated annual leave through Aug. 28.
Hutchinson said at least 6,180 people in the state have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, an increase over the 6,029 reported Monday. The true number is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
Smith said the state has reached 1,729 active virus cases.
The number of people who have died from COVID-19 has risen to 119.
Hutchinson also announced the state so far this month conducted at least 61,922 virus tests, surpassing its goal of 60,000 tests by the end of May.
Hutchinson said he was concerned by examples shared on social media of people not social distancing at Lake Hamilton and other destinations over Memorial Day weekend. Hutchinson said he believed the vast majority of people and businesses are following restrictions intended to prevent the virus’ spread.
“But there are more than a few who put their own comfort and convenience above the health of others and that is not helpful ... The direction that we go from here totally depends upon the discipline and the commitment of the people of Arkansas to avoid circumstances in which they contribute to the spread,” he said.
The state Economic Development Commission on Tuesday also announced it has approved more than $115 million in grants to help businesses comply with new coronavirus safety rules. The commission approved 10,537 grants though the program, which is being paid for with federal coronavirus relief funds.
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