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.
Racial Disparities in Virus Cases
Data published by the Arkansas Department of Health show that black Arkansans are facing disproportionally high numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and these disparities are seen across the country. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation looked at the causes of disparities for people of color. Lack of access to health care and health care coverage, jobs that increase the likelihood of exposure to the virus, and higher rates of underlying health conditions (such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma and lung disease, and compromised immune systems) are some the reasons for worse outcomes for people of color. These issues are part of longstanding disparities in health and health care for people of color.
Percentage of Positive Cases of COVID-19 by Race* in Arkansas from Arkansas Department of Health 4/23
– Unknown: 18.5 percent
– Other: 3.3 percent (AR Department of Health Secretary, Dr. Nate Smith, said some people under this category may be Marshallese, because they did not identify as Pacific Islander)
– American Indian: 0.2 percent
– Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 0.4 percent
– Asian: 1.1 percent
– Black or African American: 27.3 percent
– White: 49.2 percent
– Hispanic or Latino: 4 percent (this figure was quoted by Dr. Nate Smith at a press conference on Sunday, but data on Hispanic/Latinx Arkansans are included in “White” category in the daily Department of Health Reports)
*These add up to more than 100 percent because the Hispanic/Latino percentages aren’t included in the data the Department of Health reports
Percentage of COVID-19 Deaths in Arkansas by Race 4/23
– Unknown: 2.2 percent
– Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander: 2.2 percent
– African American: 33.3 percent
– White: 62.2 percent
Percentage of Arkansas Population by Race Census Estimates
– Two or more races: 2.2 percent
– Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 0.4 percent
– Asian: 1.7 percent
– Hispanic or Latino: 7.7 percent
– Black or African American: 15.7 percent
– White (non-Hispanic): 72.2 percent
The Cost and Access of Testing for Immigrants and the Uninsured
An individual’s insurance and immigration status may determine if they are charged for COVID-19 testing and treatment, but federal officials said this week that COVID-19 services for those who are uninsured will be reimbursed to providers at Medicare rates. The guidance from the Health Resources and Services Administration is here. “Uninsured people would not be liable for costs, and health care providers would not have to ask any questions about a patient’s immigration status, an issue that’s been cited as a barrier to care in communities with many foreign-born residents,” according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story outlining an administration plan for provider reimbursement.
Lifting Restrictions and Opening the Economy
Governor Hutchinson announced the state will start lifting restrictions on businesses beginning May 4. Though decisions to reopen certain types of business will be determined on a rolling basis, the state has already announced elective medical procedures can resume on April 27, but certain criteria must be met, such as patients must be tested for COVID-19 within 48 hours of the procedure being conducted. Rural hospitals were already excluded from the freeze on elective procedures. Some dental procedures can begin again on May 18. But the Governor emphasized, despite the easing of certain restrictions, people should continue to socially distance and wear masks. The Governor said that if cases begin to increase after restrictions are lifted, restrictions can be reimplemented.
As part of the effort to reopen parts of the economy, the state has established the Economic Recovery Task Force made up of industry, community, and faith leaders who will provide recommendations around economic recovery efforts to both the Governor and to businesses.
Ramping Up Testing and Tracing
On Thursday the Governor announced a two-day Arkansas surge campaign: Don’t Wait, Get Tested. The surge campaign aims to increase testing on Friday, April 24 and Saturday, April 25 to 1,500 tests per day. Current test rates are about 1,000 tests per day.
The Governor announced Tuesday that he created the Working Group on Testing Capacity in Arkansas to identify short-term actions that can be taken to increase capacity for testing, as well as long-term goals for the fall, while also looking at challenges ahead. The working group has already provided the Governor with their initial report, identifying four major goals:
- Expand testing for all patients with COVID-19 symptoms and those with history of potential exposure.
- Expand testing for individuals who have been in contact with persons who have tested positive for COVID-19, identified through contact investigations.
- Screen for COVID-19 in high-risk settings, like prisons and nursing homes.
- Develop a statewide antibody testing program.
Dr. Nate Smith said the development of an antibody testing program is a longer-term goal. The current reliability of antibody tests varies, and the state will work to identify the most effective. But it is still not known whether if a person has been infected with COVID-19, they will gain immunity from the virus.
The state also continues to expand its “contact tracing” program to identify individuals who have come in contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19. The state is currently training 100-120 more people to conduct contact tracing.
Child Abuse Awareness Month
This is Child Abuse Awareness month. At a press conference earlier this week, Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson spoke of the importance of reporting suspected abuse to the child abuse hotline by calling 1-844-SAVE-A-CHILD. The hotline is open 24 hours a day. Since the pandemic began, the hotline has received over 3,148 calls, nearly a 50 percent increase in calls from the same period last year.
New cases at nursing homes and long-term care facilities continue to emerge. There are active cases in 34 nursing homes and long-term care facilities, with 176 residents and 102 staff testing positive.
COVID-19 in Prisons
The parole board has begun reviewing cases of people who were incarcerated in county jails who were being held for 90 days for a violation of a sanction, to determine if they can be released early. The Governor has also asked the parole board and Department of Corrections to review the cases of non-violent, non-sex offenders who are due for release in the next six months, which is nearly 2,000 people. The state is also considering releasing people who are incarcerated and have chronic health conditions. As of Friday, 690 inmates and over 30 staff at Cummins Prison Unit tested positive for COVID-19. The CDC continues to lead testing efforts at the federal prison in Forrest City, where there are currently 79 incarcerated people and 11 staff who have tested positive.
Applying for Health Care Coverage After Losing a Job
Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said on Friday that people who have lost their workplace health care coverage in the last 60 days due to the pandemic may qualify for a marketplace qualifying health plan. They can check out their options through the Arkansas Insurance Department at 1-844-355-3262 or www.myarinsurance.com.
Immigrant Access to Emergency Benefits
The pandemic has highlighted disparities in access to health care and economic relief, particularly for immigrants and their families. Though many are working in “essential” jobs, including nursing and farming and food processing, the federal health solutions and stopgap economic measures often leave out immigrant communities. For example, economic support such as unemployment insurance is not available to those who file tax returns using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), rather than a Social Security Number. Even U.S. citizens married to immigrants are barred from receiving relief checks if they file joint tax returns with a spouse who doesn’t have a Social Security Number. The federal administration determined that financial relief for students is not available to those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, though the financial relief package passed by Congress did not specify they should be left out.
Arkansas Advocates joined partners in Northwest Arkansas calling for the restoration of Medicaid eligibility for families born in the Marshall Islands.
New Federal Legislation
This week, Congress passed, and the president signed into law, a new COVID-19 package that will add more funding to the Paycheck Protection Program that had run out of funds last week, as well as additional funding for disaster loans for small businesses. The bill also includes more funding for hospitals and COVID-19 testing. Another COVID-19 relief bill is expected in the next few weeks.
Federal unemployment numbers are released each Thursday, and last week an additional 4.4 million Americans applied for unemployment insurance, bringing the national total to over 26 million people. As of Friday, 170,000 Arkansans have filed unemployment claims. The state will be moving the website to apply for unemployment to a larger server tomorrow, in response to the dramatic increase of traffic to the site. The call center to apply for unemployment benefits will now be open seven days a week.
In Arkansas, self-employed workers have not yet been able to file for unemployment assistance allowed under the CARES Act. The state is still building the system to accept applications, which the Governor anticipates will be available the first week of May. The Department of Commerce estimates a minimum of 125,000 applications will be filed. Earlier in the week, the Governor said that self-employed workers should be able to get back payments for the weeks that they qualified for unemployment assistance, but the system was not online.
Arkansas has fallen behind the national average on response to the 2020 Census. As of Thursday, Arkansas had 47.8 percent self-response rate, compared to the national average 51.8 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.
Guidance for those with underlying health conditions: The CDC has produced these guidelines for those with underlying health conditions during the COVID-19 crisis.
Arkansas 211: 211 is a free, statewide telephone service that connects individuals in need to important community services in the state of Arkansas like food pantries, health programs, crisis intervention, shelters, and more. Just call “211.”
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 to apply for unemployment insurance online or by phone. You can apply here.
Self-Employed Workers Unemployment Assistance: Gig and self-employed workers can now sign up to receive updates on when they can apply for unemployment benefits here. You can also see what documentation you will need for when you file 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