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Arkansas Health Secretary On The Surge Of Coronavirus Cases In The State

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A cluster of states in the South is facing a surge in COVID-19 infections - among them, Arkansas, which has recorded more than 30,000 cases. Just yesterday, 564 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 and just a few hours ago, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson announced a statewide mask order.

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ASA HUTCHINSON: If people say, well, we're going to issue this mandate and all of a sudden everything is fine, I just caution you - this is just one tool among many that we have to look at, and it's an overall strategy that we have to implement.

MCCAMMON: With us now is the state's secretary of health, Dr. Nate Smith.

Secretary Smith, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NATE SMITH: Thank you very much. Good to be with you.

MCCAMMON: Why is Governor Hutchinson only just now issuing this mask order?

SMITH: Well, the governor has explained it's really important not so much what you say in a mandate but what people actually do. And he has been educating, working with our public, as have myself and the Department of Health staff and other partners, to prepare people so they can accept this. To put out a mandate that people don't follow is not as effective as if you get the public behind you.

MCCAMMON: But there's been a surge in Arkansas - more than 5,000 new infections in the last week, as I understand it. What's causing that?

SMITH: Well, there's a lot of things that have been causing it, but it bottles - comes down to, you know, basically, people being out and about, interacting with each other, not physically distancing, not wearing masks. You know, we know the things that can prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they're not easy to do on a sustained basis at a population level.

MCCAMMON: Governor Hutchinson has said that schools should open no later than August 26. Looking at these numbers, is that feasible?

SMITH: Well, that remains to be seen. We have been able to successfully open a number of businesses. I know here at the Arkansas Department of Health, we have had our staff on the job. We've had to have them. And we've implemented physical distancing, masks and other precautions, and we've not had the spread of COVID-19 amongst our staff. Hopefully, we can accomplish the same thing in the school setting because, in some sense, it is another work setting. But, of course, if the epidemiology dictates a different approach, I know the governor will take that into consideration.

MCCAMMON: Your state began easing some social distancing restrictions back in April - allowing elective medical procedures, later on improving camps for kids, things like that. Was it too early? Did Arkansas jump the gun in the spring?

SMITH: Well, you know, this is the first time anyone has ever dealt with this virus. So there's going to be a certain amount of unknowns. You know, you have to take a certain amount of risks. Some of the things that we've tried have not worked out as well as others. But, you know, you - unfortunately, as public health leaders, the option of just sitting around doing nothing is not viable in the midst of this pandemic.

MCCAMMON: In retrospect, if you could go back, would you wait a little longer?

SMITH: Well, I might have or we might have, you know, tried to look more carefully at the feasibility of some of our precautions. We've had - you know, you can have these great plans that look good on paper, but the question is, can they actually be achieved with fidelity in real life?

MCCAMMON: This week, a report from the Centers for Disease Control faulted the state of Arkansas for sending, quote, "inconsistent messages" about the coronavirus. As a state health official, what is your response?

SMITH: Well, that's not actually what the CDC report said. That was taken from a quote from a focus group where there are some leaders in the Marshallese community who noted that some of the Marshallese reported that they had felt that they had received inconsistent messaging from authorities in a very broad, general sense. And we know there have been a need for consistent culturally and linguistically appropriate messaging in that community. But that is not what the CDC themselves said.

MCCAMMON: All right. That's Dr. Nate Smith. He's Arkansas's secretary of health.

Thank you so much for your time.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.