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As COVID-19 infections continue to surge across Arkansas and statewide cases top 20,000, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is urging Arkansans to socially distance and wear face masks, or risk future cancellations.

While holding a football in one hand and a mask in the other, Hutchinson cautioned Wednesday that high school and college sports would likely be canceled if the public does not help slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks while in public. Hutchinson does not wear a mask at his daily press briefings.

"If we wear our masks, if we reduce the cases, if we reduce the growth, if we stop the spread of the virus, that puts us in a better position to have some type of team sports this fall," Hutchinson said.

At his briefing Monday, the day that cumulative cases in Arkansas passed 20,000, Hutchinson also urged people to practice social distancing while celebrating the upcoming July 4 holiday. He alluded to social media posts he had seen appearing to show Arkansans engaging in cramped, unsafe gatherings.

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 21,197 cumulative COVID-19 cases in Arkansas Wednesday, up 420 from the day before. Active cases fell to 5,757 from 5,976 on Tuesday. Over the course of a week, active cases increased by 190, over 3.4%.

As of Wednesday, there were 275 patients hospitalized, down by 15 in a day but up by eight in a week. Wednesday was the second consecutive day with a decrease in hospitalizations, representing the first time since May 12 that hospitalizations fell two days in a row.

Seventy-two patients were on ventilators Wednesday, up by five in a day and 14 in seven days, according to the ADH. In total, 15,163 people had recovered, up 632 in a day and 3,595 in a week. Deaths rose by seven from Tuesday, for a total of 277.

Of active cases, 153 were nursing home residents and 525 were in state correctional facilities, ADH Director Nate Smith said at Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s daily press conference Wednesday.

As an ongoing outbreak in NWA presses on, Washington and Benton Counties continue to be amongst the top five counties with the most new cases per day.

Washington County reported 56 new cases between Tuesday and Wednesday, making its total cumulative cases 3,634 and its active cases 1,187. Benton County reported 29 new cases, for a total of 2,752 cumulative cases and 674 active cases. Of active cases in the state, 32.3% are in Northwest Arkansas.

Since June 24, cumulative cases increased by 867 in Washington County, and by 556 in Benton County. Over that week, 2,705 new tests were performed in Washington County, with a 32.1% average positivity rate. In Benton County, 4,114 tests were performed, with an average positivity rate of 13.5%.

The World Health Organization recommends that localities see a positive rate of 5% or less for at least 14 days before reopening, according to the WHO. Arkansas is currently in the second phase of economic reopening. Hutchinson has not yet announced any decisions regarding the third and final phase.

Much of the outbreak in NWA has been tied to various demographic groups, such as the Springdale Hispanic community, and businesses, such as Tyson Foods. A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in NWA June 12 to investigate high case counts and household clusters of infection among Springdale’s Hispanic residents.

Tyson announced June 19 that of 3,748 employees of its NWA facilities tested, 481 tested positive. About 95% of those who tested positive were asymptomatic. In response, China suspended imports of poultry from the Springdale plant June 21.

Sarah Komar is the news editor for The Arkansas Traveler, where she previously worked as a staff reporter in 2019 and early 2020.

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