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As statewide cumulative COVID-19 cases top 35,000, several municipalities are openly disregarding state health mandates, while Arkansas pediatricians are urging against reopening public schools next month.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s July 16 statewide mask mandate became effective Monday. Violating the mandate, which requires masks to be worn by those 10 and older in public places where social distancing is not possible, carries a fine of $100-$500 following a warning.

However, the leaders of several police forces across the state, including the Marshall and Texarkana Police Departments and Lonoke, Randolf and Polk County Sheriff’s Offices, announced in press releases that they would not enforce the mandate by writing tickets.

The police chiefs and sheriffs cited reasons ranging from perceived government overreach, to lack of resources, to prioritizing other law enforcement duties. Hutchinson said at his daily press briefing Monday that he was overall “very pleased with the response” from Arkansas law enforcement agencies.

While active cases and hospitalizations are trending downward in the region following alarming spikes in June, the pandemic continues to rage in Northwest Arkansas.

Washington County reported 38 new cases between Tuesday and Wednesday, making its total cumulative cases 5,350 and its active cases 640. Benton County reported 46 new cases, for a total of 3,985 cumulative cases and 433 active cases. Of active cases in the state, 15.6% are in Northwest Arkansas.

Since July 15, cumulative cases increased by 572 in Washington County, and by 387 in Benton County. During that week, 2,824 new tests were performed in Washington County, with a 20.3% average positivity rate. In Benton County, 4,313 tests were performed, with an average positivity rate of nearly 9%.

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 of three phases of economic reopening.

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 35,246 cumulative COVID-19 cases in Arkansas Wednesday, an increase of 591 in a day and nearly 5,000 in a week.

Active cases fell to 6,876 from 6,998 on Tuesday. Over the course of a week, active cases increased by 437, nearly 6.8%.

As of Wednesday, there were 474 patients hospitalized, down by 14 in a day but up by 16 in a week. At Monday’s press briefing, acting ADH Director Dr. Jose Romero announced that Arkansas was third in the nation for per-capita hospitalizations, higher than most surrounding states, including Texas.

Hutchinson said he had no intention of re-tightening restrictions on businesses, as officials in the neighboring state did in late June in response to rising hospitalizations.

Statewide, 103 patients were on ventilators Wednesday, down by three in a day but up by 13 in seven days, according to the ADH. In total, 27,990 cases were considered inactive, up 707 in a day and nearly 4,500 in a week. Deaths rose by six from Tuesday and by 45 from July 15, for a total of 380.

Of active cases, 140 were nursing home residents and 916 were in state correctional facilities, Romero said Wednesday.

A model released by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences on Tuesday predicted that Arkansas could see 100,000 total active cases in late November, although reaching and maintaining an 80% mask compliance rate could alter that trajectory.

As case numbers fluctuate and the start of school gets closer, Hutchinson has faced questions about his decision to reopen Arkansas school districts to in-person instruction in August. In a Tuesday press release, officials of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said they could not support a statewide return to school.

"Safety policies and resources are not standardized across the state, leading to inequitable protection for children, teachers, and families," officials said.

The chapter recommended that local governments reopen individual school districts based upon ability to meet standards of downward case trends, building safety, mask-wearing and social distancing mandates, and ability to stock essential supplies.

Hutchinson said Wednesday that he did not intend to follow the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for mandated mask use by all students, but that he was reviewing the other recommendations. He also gave no indication that he would alter the mandated reopening date range of Aug. 24-26.

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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