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story.lead_photo.caption Dr. Deborah Birx answers questions for the media Monday Aug. 17, 2020 in Little Rock following a round table discussion with local leaders at the Governor's Mansion. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Americans are weary of COVID-19 and reluctant to commit to a long-term battle against the pandemic, White House coronavirus response director Dr. Deborah Birx said Monday.

COVID-19 fatigue could undermine efforts to limit the spread of the virus, she told state leaders during a meeting in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock.

“We just have to give people a timeline that’s manageable,” she said.

Birx made her comments shortly before the state released its daily COVID-19 data.

Arkansas recorded 412 new cases of the coronavirus on Monday and four more deaths, lifting the number of fatalities to 603.

After five months of restrictions, nerves are fraying, she suggested.

When Americans are told “We could be living with this virus for years,” their response is often “‘I can’t live like this for years.’ And they’re willing to give up,” Birx said.

Even those most at risk are struggling, she said.

“I talked to a nursing home resident yesterday in Oklahoma and she was like: ‘We can’t keep this up. If you give us a timeline, we may be able to hold on another two or three months. We might be able to hold on ‘til the holidays. But you can’t tell us that this is going to go on like this into 2021,” Birx said.

That sentiment is shared by others, Birx said.

“I’ve been so struck by the number of Americans across the country that have just had it,” she said.

“Mortality decreases” have also complicated matters, she said.

“When people start to realize that 99 percent of us are going to be fine, it becomes more and more difficult” to get people to comply, she said.

U.S. COVID-19 cases peaked and began falling in April, only to begin rising again around Memorial Day.

Summer social gatherings are largely to blame, Birx said.

“We’re finding that now that the majority of the community spread is happening from people having parties: Backyard parties, birthday parties, weddings, socials, thinking it’s just the neighbors or just my family from across the state,” she said.

“Somehow, we always assume our family members are safe,” she said. “They should never assume that they don’t have COVID.”

Birx made her comments after a luncheon attended by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his wife, Susan Hutchinson, Arkansas Department of Health Director Dr. Jose Romero, state Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe, state education commissioner Johnny Key, state corrections commissioner Solomon Graves, Arkansas Hospital Association president and CEO Bo Royall, state health department chief of staff Stephanie Williams, Baptist Health president and CEO Troy Wells, Community Health Centers of Arkansas CEO LaShannon Spencer, senior epidemiologist Irum Zaidi, Arkansas Health Care Association executive director Rachel Bunch and Arkansas Chamber of Commerce president Randy Zook.

A fixture at President Donald Trump’s March and April COVID-19 briefings, Birx spent much of the summer consulting with state and local officials.

Saturday, she stopped in Kansas City, Kan. Sunday, she visited Tulsa.

Monday was spent in central Arkansas.

“This is our 19th state just in the last six weeks. We’ve been going state by state,” she said during a press conference outside the governor’s mansion.

Daily COVID-19 cases in the Natural State have been falling in recent days, reversing a nearly-three-month trend.

“What we’ve seen in Arkansas over the last couple of weeks is really the start of some improvement. Improvement in this [Pulaski] county, in Washington County,” Birx said.

She said she believes the progress has occurred because “the people of Arkansas are following the important, common-sense path forward to get control of this virus. It starts with wearing this mask all the time. 24-7. Indoors, outdoors. Continuing to social distance,” she said.

Including Monday’s 412 new cases, the total number of Arkansans who have tested positive for the virus during the pandemic to 53,077.

Of those cases, 6,341 were considered active infections, the lowest level in over a month. Active infections peaked at over 7,000 earlier in August.

Birx said Hutchinson has “a whole series of mitigation efforts planned if cases go back up” and said steps had been taken to prepare for the upcoming school year.

“You have a very good plan for what to do if there’s an outbreak in a school [and] a very good plan about what to do if there’s an outbreak in a university,” she said.

Before leaving, Birx again stressed the importance of face coverings and social distancing.

“Tens of thousands of lives will be saved if we wear masks and we don’t have parties in our backyards,” she said.

“Somehow, we always believe our family’s safe and our friends are safe. You cannot tell who’s infected with the virus and so you need to keep your mask on,” she said.

At his COVID-19 daily briefing afterward, Hutchinson said the latest COVID-19 trends in Arkansas are encouraging.

“There was reduction in our [positivity] rate, and secondly a reduction in our cases,” Hutchinson said. “I was delighted that [Birx] recognized that, with the White House Coronavirus Task Force.”

“Clearly, we have a downward trend over the last week to ten days,” the governor continued. “I’m not necessarily saying that is going to continue, because that all depends upon individual behavior of people in Arkansas, compliance with the mask mandate, making sure you social distance, making sure that you don’t get into large gatherings without being protected or protecting others.”

Delayed tests

The state’s plan to deploy up to 3,600 antigen tests to local health offices may have to be delayed after the federal government purchased much of the testing kits in the supply chain, Gov. Hutchinson said Monday.

The governor said he was made aware of the issue during his meeting with Dr. Birx earlier Monday. He said the state is still waiting for the delivery of more than half the antigen testing kits ordered last month.

“She indicated that the federal government has made the acquisition of much of the antigen testing supplies that we were reliant upon and that they’re going to put the priority on the nursing homes, and to make sure that they have the testing material that they need to conduct the tests with the most vulnerable population,” Hutchinson said. “That will make us adjust our timeline.”

Antigen tests are considered less reliable than other, lab-confirmed tests, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, they provide results much quicker, in less than an hour.

The Health Department announced on July 27 that it had ordered 200 antigen testing machines from Becton, Dickson and Co., along with enough kits for 3,600 tests. The governor had touted those tests as a way for local health units to identify positive cases in schools, which open in a week.

As of Monday, the state had received all of its machines but only enough kits for 1,200 tests. That was “enough to get started,” the governor said.

Results from antigen tests are not included among the state’s official case totals; however people who test positive through an antigen test can be referred for more comprehensive testing.

Jaime Adame of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette contributed to this report.

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