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Coronavirus outbreak among Arkansas lawmakers grows to 9

(KY3)
Published: Oct. 27, 2020 at 6:01 PM CDT
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A coronavirus outbreak in the Arkansas Legislature grew by two on Tuesday, pushing the number of lawmakers who have caught the disease in the past week and a half to nine, including a niece of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Reps. Jeff Wardlaw and Gayla McKenzie are the latest to test positive for the virus, a House spokeswoman said.

Arkansas' outbreak is the second largest among state legislatures, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. The largest outbreak was in Mississippi this summer, when dozens of legislators tested positive.

The Arkansas outbreak led to a halt in budget hearings last week, though they resumed on Tuesday with new social distancing measures in effect.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said the cases were concerning, but he didn’t call for another halt to the hearings, noting that the panel last week voted to allow members to participate remotely.

“We’ll just continue to have to monitor the situation and just take things basically one day at a time,” Shepherd said.

McKenzie’s uncle is Hutchinson, who has limited his public appearances after being exposed to someone with the the virus. Hutchinson has tested negative several times since his exposure.

Wardlaw and McKenzie are seeking reelection, though McKenzie is running unopposed. McKenzie’s brother is Senate President Jim Hendren.

Wardlaw was at the last budget hearing on Oct. 20 and McKenzie was last at the Capitol two weeks ago, Shepherd said. The only legislators known to have contracted the virus before the latest outbreak were four who caught it in the spring.

Arkansas was among a handful of states that didn’t impose a stay-at-home order because of the pandemic, and Hutchinson has said he’s not considering rolling back the reopening of businesses that had closed. Hutchinson has faced pushback over the state’s mask mandate and other restrictions, including from a group of GOP lawmakers who sued challenging them.

Arkansas' probable and confirmed virus cases rose by 952 on Tuesday, to 107,679 since the pandemic began. Twenty-four more people died from COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 1,857. The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations rose by 27, to a new high of 676.

Hutchinson said that although the surge in hospitalizations is concerning, he isn’t considering reinstating limits on elective procedures.

“There’s a great need for additional medical teams that can handle (intensive care unit) beds, they can handle all the other needs of the hospital,” Hutchinson said. “We hope we can keep that flow of personnel available to them and that’s one of the things we have to look at.”

Twenty-seven percent of the state’s 9,120 hospital beds and nearly 11% percent of its 1,076 ICU beds are available, according to the Department of Health. There are 242 COVID-19 patients in ICUs in the state.

Copyright 2020 AP. All rights reserved.