Gov. Asa Hutchinson pointed out Tuesday that the last time he was in Searcy, which was Sept. 4 when he delivered his daily COVID-19 update at Unity Health-White County Medical Center, the state had 401 hospitalizations due to the virus.

While speaking during the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 100 For the Future virtual annual meeting, Hutchinson said the state had 786 hospitalized because of COVID-19. “That’s almost a 100 percent increase.” (Later on Tuesday, it was reported by The Associated Press that Arkansas’ hospitalizations had risen by 34 to 895. By Wednesday afternoon, the Arkansas Department of Health was reporting 902.)

“No matter what your view or skepticism, it’s just hard to argue with hospitalizations,” he said. “That’s when people really, really get sick and they go to the hospital, and thank goodness most of them recover from that.”

Noting that by number Tuesday’s amount of hospitalizations was a “385 increase,” Hutchinson said, “You can see the reason I convened the winter COVID task force, so we could really look at primarily our hospitalizations, how we can manage that to make sure not only those that have COVID get the help that they need but also those that need elective surgery have – they have cancer issues, they have a whole host of medical issues – that they can get the service that they need.

“We don’t want to have to making difficult decisions as to who gets the ICU [intensive care unit] beds.”

Although the White House Coronavirus Task Force has recommended that Arkansas limit indoor capacity to less than 25 percent in 52 counties classified as “red” or “orange,” Hutchinson said any decisions about shutting things down need to be “data driven.”

“If there is a connection to an outbreak there can be an appropriate response but the businesses are doing so much to make sure that their customers are safe, they’re following the public health guidelines, they should not have a consequence unless there is data that supports it,” the Republican governor said. “Secondly, it is a taking of the government if you do a restriction, and we have tried to have the Ready For Business grants, the Business Interruption grants, that we put 129 million dollars out there and more to help our businesses to survive because of restrictions. At some point, you run out of money. At some point, the federal government has to stop printing money.

“I resist in every way unless it is proven that there’s a data connection, of putting further restrictions on our businesses.”

Arkansas has a $240 million surplus, Hutchinson said, that can be allocated and help the state ease through challenging times.

“I said that we should use 100 million dollars of that surplus for putting into our long-term reserve fund,” he said, adding that Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) has been an advocate of this.

Hutchinson said more money needs to be put into “rural broadband.” He noted a “very successful grant program” for communities and telecom providers that can expand high-speed broadband into rural homes and rural neighborhoods. Hutchinson called this a “critical part of growth” that the state wants to continue to invest in. He mentioned part of the surplus may be used for that purpose.”

Dismang, the budget committee chairman, also spoke at the meeting, noting efforts in White County during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am really proud of how our community is doing. From Unity hospital to Harding University to the K through 12, I just think we have done an incredible job and have been a great example to the rest of the state on how to move forward during this epidemic,” Dismang said. “I just want to say thank you. Continue to buy and shop local and just continue to help out local businesses.

Hutchinson called Dismang a “local hero” to Searcy. He said he loves what he sees going on in the schools in Searcy, loves the teamwork in the community and said Unity Health does an outstanding job in the medical community.

“Whenever you look at what has been accomplished statewide, none of it could have been done without Sen. Dismang. As former pro tempore of the Senate, he is the one who worked with us to initiate the first round of tax cuts, reversed a trend historically of rising taxes in Arkansas. We have done that every session; now he is budget chair, which is a key position to lead our state and partner with us.”

During the pandemic specifically, Hutchinson said no one has had more influence in shaping the support for businesses “than your own Sen. Dismang.”

In Ready For Business grants, Hutchinson said the money has gone to 11,400 small businesses across the state.

“That is support during the pandemic and that would have not been possible without Jonathan’s leadership,” he said. “That impacted 225,000 jobs.”

Hutchinson said information about Business Interruption grants, advocated by Dismang, can be obtained at arkansasready.com The application window closes Nov. 25.

Addressing the wait for an approved vaccine for COVID-19, Hutchinson said, “It is good news that we have vaccines on the horizon, but they are a ways off. We have our vaccination plan ready that within 24 hours of whenever the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] gives emergency use authorization, we expect shipments of those vaccines to arrive in Arkansas. ... We will see if they can do that but that is their pledge to us.

“It is going to go first to our medical care providers, those who are on the first line. It will take some time, many months before it gets out to the general population, but it gives us hope for the future and it really gives an appreciation for the scientific research that goes behind those vaccines.”

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