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Arkansas creates COVID-19 fund as 2 more die from virus

March 28, 2020 GMT
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Signs outside the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. include reminders about social distancing due to the coronavirus outbreak, Friday, March 27, 2020. The state Senate met at the Capitol to take up a plan to set up a $173 million rainy day fund to address a budget shortfall projected because of the outbreak. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo)
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Signs outside the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. include reminders about social distancing due to the coronavirus outbreak, Friday, March 27, 2020. The state Senate met at the Capitol to take up a plan to set up a $173 million rainy day fund to address a budget shortfall projected because of the outbreak. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas’ governor signed legislation early Saturday creating a $173 million fund that he can use to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, and health officials said two more people have died from the virus in the state.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s signature moves the state’s surplus into a new “COVID-19 Rainy Day Fund” that he can access with the approval of legislative leaders. Hutchinson signed identical bills creating the fund shortly after they were unanimously approved by the House and Senate in a midnight session.

“This is a historic moment in this rotunda in which the General Assembly, both House and Senate, has come together in quick fashion to meet the emergency needs of our state,” Hutchinson said before signing the bills.

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Hutchinson announced later Saturday that the number of people with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, had increased to at least 404 from 386 the previous day. The number of people who have died from the illness increased to five.

Dr. Nathaniel Smith, the state health secretary, said both deaths were from central Arkansas. One was in their 70s and the other in their 40s, Smith said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

State Commerce Secretary said Arkansas processed 30,000 new applications for unemployment this past week, a record number and an increase over the 9,400 the state saw the previous week. Preston said the department is expanding its capability, including making the website for applications available seven days a week.

“This is a health crisis we’re facing in Arkansas, but it is also a financial crisis for many Arkansans,” Hutchinson said.

The creation of the fund to respond to the outbreak capped a marathon session that began Thursday. Hutchinson called the session in response to a $353 million shortfall he said the state faced because of the coronavirus.

Concerns about the coronavirus moved the House from its chamber in the Capitol to a basketball arena, with representatives spaced at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) from one another in the stands. The Senate met at the Capitol, but restricted the number of members allowed on the floor.

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Check out more of the AP’s coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.