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Local legislators join suit against executive branch

EDITOR’S NOTE: As a service to our readers, The Sentinel-Record publishes updates released each weekday by the city of Hot Springs and the state of Arkansas.

The following stats were shared Thursday at Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s daily COVID-19 news conference in Little Rock and posted on the Arkansas Department of Health’s website:

• 63,081 cumulative confirmed cases, up 969 from Wednesday.

• 747,317 test reports, up 10,000 from Wednesday.

• 8.4% infection rate, no change from Wednesday.

• 2,109 cumulative probable cases, up 59 from Wednesday.

• 13,631 antigen test reports, up 533 from Wednesday.

• 15.8% infection rate, down from 15.9% Wednesday.

• 5,331 active cases, up 321 from Wednesday.

• 56,889 recoveries, up 628 from Wednesday.

• 425 hospitalizations, down 10 from Wednesday.

• 861 deaths, up 20 from Wednesday.

• 91 cases on a ventilator, up one from Wednesday.

• 1,479 cumulative confirmed cases in Garland County, up 21 from Wednesday.

• 23,025 test reports for Garland County, up 343 from Wednesday.

• 21,372 private lab reports, up 288 from Wednesday.

• 1,653 public lab reports, up 55 from Wednesday.

• 6.4% infection rate, no change from Wednesday.

• 148 active cases in Garland County, up eight from Wednesday.

• 1,301 recoveries in Garland County, up 13 from Wednesday.

• 30 deaths in Garland County, no change from Wednesday.

Hutchinson said college students’ behavior during Labor Day weekend will determine the trajectory of the state’s infection curve in the coming weeks.

The 969 cases reported Thursday, the most in four weeks, comprised 211 from Washington County, with 81% of the newly infected falling between the ages of 18 and 24. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and its 24,000 students are in Washington County.

“I think it can safely be surmised that many of those new cases are college students,” Hutchinson said. “It’s just a signal that we have a lot of work to do here in Arkansas. That the virus is still out in our community.”

Dr. Jose Romero, Health Department secretary, said a total of 250 of the cases reported Thursday came from college-age students, including half of the 38 reported in Jefferson County. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is in Jefferson County.

“They are the reflection of less than rigorous adherence to recommendations that have been made over and over again,” he said a day after he admonished college students to exercise more social responsibility.

Hutchinson reiterated that warning Thursday, calling this weekend an inflection point in the state’s epidemic.

“What will Labor Day weekend be like two weeks from now in terms of cases?” he said. “That’s in the hands of those students, and we’re asking them to act responsibly. … It’s a critical time as to whether we go flat, whether we go down or whether we’re going to wind up going up because of increased activity and not following guidelines.”

He said the new cases reported Thursday, which raised the rolling seven-day average of new infections to 619.43, the highest average since the Health Department added more than 20,000 previously unreported negative test results to the state’s testing total Aug. 15, showed that the emergency powers he invoked in March and has continued to exercise are warranted.

A group of state legislators has said otherwise, filing a lawsuit Thursday in Pulaski County Circuit Court challenging the executive branch’s authority to continue the public health emergency without legislative review. Sen. Alan Clark, R-District 13, of Lonsdale, and Reps. Marcus Richmond, R-District 21, of Harvey, Bruce Cozart, R-District 24, of Hot Springs, and Laurie Rushing, R-District 26, of Hot Springs, all members of Garland County’s legislative delegation, are plaintiffs in the suit.

Hutchinson said telemedicine, liability protection for small businesses, virtual education and other measures needed to manage the pandemic would cease if both legislative chambers voted to end the emergency declaration. The powers he’s invoked were granted by the Legislature, he said, to allow public health experts in the executive branch to act with the urgency the pandemic demands.

“They consider Health Department directives and guidelines are subject to legislative review,” Hutchinson said. “I don’t know any of them who are as qualified in public health matters as our epidemiologist and our public health leaders at the Health Department.

“The General Assembly would be deciding what public health guidelines would be. That is not how to act quickly during an emergency. Those are executive branch functions that are based on the authority wisely granted by the General Assembly. … When people are dying, you don’t need delay. You need quick action.”

The 21 new cases reported Thursday in Garland County put the rolling seven-day average of new cases at 15.86, up from Wednesday’s 15.71 average. The new cases came from 343 test reports, the most in more than two weeks. The 55 reports from the Health Department’s public lab were also the most in more than two weeks.

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