Policy and administrative changes continue to move quickly at the state and federal level in response to COVID-19. Below is a breakdown of major legislation and actions that have passed, been implemented, or are moving through Congress or the state General Assembly, so far. Arkansas Advocates for Children Families will work to keep you updated on policy news at the end of each week.
Click here to see AACF’s short-term recommendations for addressing the crisis at the state level. More pandemic-related blogs and publications are available here.
General Assembly Fiscal Session
The Arkansas General Assembly is adjourning after passing a $5.89 billion budget for the 2021 Fiscal Year, which begins July 1. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette summarized the budget in this article. With a decreased revenue forecast, an estimated $212 million of the budget that passed will be unfunded. Senator Jimmy Hickey from Texarkana was elected to be the next Senate President Pro Tempore for the 93rd General Assembly beginning in 2021.
Relief for Health Care Workers
The federal government has granted Arkansas a Medicaid Waiver that will allow the state to make payments to direct-care workers at long-term care facilities treating patients with COVID-19, including home health care aids and nursing assistants, among others. Effective April 5, payments will be $125/week for those working 20-39 hours a week; those working over 40 hours a week will receive $250/week. For direct care workers working with patients that have tested positive for COVID-19, those working under 20 hours a week will receive $125/week, those working 20-39 hours will receive $250/week, and those working over 40 hours a week will receive $500/week. Payments will end on April 30 unless COVID-19 active cases exceed 1,000 in the state, in which case payments will extend for an additional 30 days. Those who work in hospitals and those who are working in non-direct care at nursing homes are not currently included, but the state is still seeking funding for those workers. The state is also seeking funding for increased payments to foster parents.
Mapping the Virus
Our state expanded its capacity to track the spread of the virus, with 78 nurses conducting investigations to trace the contacts of those who have tested positive. The state is also using a new computer program, Situational Awareness Response Assistant (SARA), to monitor contacts of those who have tested positive for COVID-19.
A map of the virus in Arkansas, as well as testing locations throughout the state, is here.
Limiting Travel to the State
Arkansas is still working to prevent out-of-state recreational travel to the Natural State. Travel on interstates has decreased by 55 percent from last year. In addition to measures already taken by state parks, as travelers drive into Arkansas, they will see on overhead message boards “no rec lodging for out of state travelers.”
Preparing for Life After the Crisis
The Governor said the state is beginning to discuss next steps for when the country starts to move out of the crisis, and decisions will be based on a health perspective. He also planned to meet with other governors in our region to see if there could be coordinated efforts. The Governor believes Arkansas’s targeted response will be easier to sustain but noted now is not the time to begin to decrease protective measures. On Monday, the Governor said he does not believe we have yet reached the peak number of cases. According to the University of Washington, Arkansas’s peak is now projected for May 2. The state also has created the Medical Advisory Board for COVID-19 Post-Peak, made up of seven health experts to decide what measures need to be put in place for future mitigation of the virus.
“It’s way too early to do a victory lap, but it looks like we should start planning ahead,” Dr. Nate Smith, Director of the Arkansas Department of Health, said on Thursday.
Two Executive Orders for Health Care Workers
Governor Hutchinson issued an executive order to allow first responders and front-line health care workers to file a worker’s compensation claim if they are infected with COVID-19 because of their work responsibilities.
The Governor also issued an order that provides liability immunity for emergency medical workers, including nurses and doctors, during the COVID-19 crisis.
As of Thursday, 118 residents and 88 staff members have been infected with COVID-19 in 28 nursing homes and long-term care facilities. There have been seven deaths. Cases in nursing homes make up 11 percent of total cases.
Outbreak in Prisons
COVID cases in prisons make up 10 percent of total cases – 6 percent in state facilities and 4 percent in a federal facility in Forrest City. The Arkansas Department of Corrections has suspended visitors until June 1 and has dropped the cost of virtual and phone visits. Currently, testing is limited to the Cummins Prison Unit, with 46 positive cases, as of Wednesday. The Department of Health is working with other facilities to discuss best practices to prevent infection. Mitigation efforts include the use of masks and cleaning of facilities. In Little Rock Community Corrections, 27 staff and 59 inmates have tested positive, as of Thursday. The state does not currently have plans to release people who are incarcerated through what has been called “compassionate release.”
The federal prison in Forrest City had 55 positive tests, 46 of whom are inmates. The Centers for Disease Control is leading testing efforts there with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Summer Camps Likely to be Closed
Dr. Smith at the Department of Health said this week that he believes it is likely that summer camps will not be allowed this summer, because they are high-risk facilities for spreading of the virus.
With an additional 5.2 million unemployment claims filed in the past week, the nation is up to about 22 million unemployment claims in the past month. Arkansas has processed over 150,000 unemployment applications. The state’s unemployment hotline has expanded its hours from 6:00am-4:00pm, six days a week. Gig and self-employed workers can now sign up to receive updates on when they can apply for unemployment benefits here. The state has also created a new website for those looking for information on unemployment benefits: arunemployment.com.
Business Loan Program Runs Out of Funds
Yesterday, it was announced that the U.S. Small Business Administration has run out of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program after just two weeks and will no longer be accepting applications. The agency approved 1.6 million applications. In Arkansas, 14,803 businesses were approved for the payroll protection plan, amounting to $2.1 billion. Congress is considering adding more funding to the program.
The Census Bureau announced it is extending the self-response deadline to October 31. Arkansas has fallen behind the national average on response to the 2020 Census. As of Thursday, Arkansas had 45.8 percent self-response rate, compared to the national average 49.1 percent. Arkansas Advocates has created a list of resources for your census outreach.
Arkansas United COVID-19 Page in Spanish: Para información sobre COVID-19 en Español
Marshallese Education Initiative COVID-19 Page in Marshallese: Ñan melele ko ikijeen COVID-19 ilo kajin Majõl
Applying for assistance programs: Legal Aid of Arkansas has created a fact sheet breaking down how to apply for Medicaid, SNAP food assistance, and unemployment benefits. Legal Aid has also created a comprehensive guide.
Receiving stimulus payments: Arkansas Advocates has created a fact sheet on how to receive the federal Economic Impact Payment from the CARES Act.
Bank On Arkansas+: For individuals and families without bank accounts who would like to open an account to receive federal emergency payments more quickly, Bank On Arkansas+ connects individuals with banks and credit unions that offer checking accounts that are certified safe, affordable and provide direct deposit to receive payments electronically. You can find more information here.
Applying for Unemployment Insurance: There is a new option of applying for unemployment insurance online or by phone. You can apply here.
Applying for Medicaid, ARKids First (children’s health insurance), or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps): The Department of Human Services has made changes encouraging the public to avoid in-person visits to DHS county offices and is allowing fewer people in the lobbies at the same time, increasing wait times. People are encouraged to apply online at www.Access.Arkansas.gov or to use the phone application option by calling 1-855-372-1084. County offices will be installing drop-off boxes for paper applications. And required SNAP interviews may be conducted by phone rather than in person.
WIC (nutrition assistance program for Women, Infants and Children): Contact your county Department of Health office for information on how to apply.
Department of Health Updates: You can get the latest COVID-19 updates from the Department of Health here.
Finding a food pantry: Some pantries may be closed, so call ahead to confirm.
Arkansas Foodbank pantry map
Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas food pantry network
Harvest Regional Food Bank (Texarkana)
Food Bank of North Central Arkansas
Northwest Arkansas Food Bank
River Valley Regional Food Bank