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Arkansas governor hopes to avoid statewide mandate by 'educating' those against wearing masks

UAMS Chancellor Dr. Patterson points to studies that indicate mask-wearing by 90 percent of people in a community can most effectively contain the virus.

The chancellor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Services went into the weekend fully alarmed. Dr. Cam Patterson knew the state's only teaching hospital had its ICU maxed out. 

Then Saturday afternoon saw the number of new cases top the thousand mark for the first time.

The chancellor took to traditional and social media pushing for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to issue a statewide mask-wearing mandate.

Dr. Patterson didn't get his wish Monday despite "crossed-fingers," as the governor maintained his hope that education could avoid government mandates, but health experts everywhere got some relief by the rest of the weekend numbers.

RELATED: UAMS chancellor calls for 'mandatory masking' in Arkansas after 1,061 cases in one day

"Frankly, there have been too many mixed messages about the benefit or lack of benefits of masking," said Dr. Patterson on why he thinks a mandate is best. "There is no doubt that masks are beneficial."

The governor and his top advisor, Dr. Nate Smith, the secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health agree with Patterson and the science about masks. They just disagree on how to maximize those benefits.

"To me, it is about behavior and how do you get people to respond to that," the Republican governor said Monday. "All of Arkansas should sense the urgency of wearing a mask."

Dr. Patterson points to studies that indicate mask-wearing by 90 percent of people in a community can most effectively contain and diminish the virus that causes COVID-19.

Without a mandate in place, he says health experts and politicians have to become coaches delivering pep talks.

"It's been done in many different places. It's been done in large cities in the U.S. It's been done around the world," he said. "There's no reason to think that the people of Arkansas aren't capable of doing what other people can do."

When 1,016 new cases were announced Saturday, the governor issued a statement concerned about the figures, but some of the pressure came off as the health department reported more than a third of those cases were part of a growing outbreak in the Ouachita River Unit prison in Malvern.

More than 500 inmates and staff are infected and 326 of those test results showed up on Saturday.

The remaining 690 community cases is more in line with recent daily new case announcements. Then Sunday and Monday saw new cases of 503 and 572, respectively.

Still, the governor called those numbers too high and found signs of encouragement.

"In northwest Arkansas, we've had some success. Benton County was one of those that was going up like a skyrocket, and now you see them coming back down," the governor said. There is not any city or any mandate in Benton County.

"Contrast that to Pulaski County, you had a mandate here in the city of Little Rock and yet you see the cases going up," he said.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. signed an executive proclamation for masking on June 25.

Despite the governor avoiding a mandate again, Dr. Patterson does not blame him for how he's handled the state's pandemic response. Both he and the governor have problems with things Washington has and hasn't done, though both men have different reasons.

"I'm not disappointed in the governor. If I'm disappointed in anybody it's in our federal response to COVID-19," said Dr. Patterson. "The lack of clear messaging really makes his job difficult."

The governor expressed disappointment that he has become a "lone voice" calling for the Trump Administration to use its power to mandate private testing labs expand their capacity to help small states like Arkansas as much larger states experience surges in virus cases.

RELATED: Here's which Arkansas cities have adopted ordinances requiring masks in public

Dr. Smith sought to extol the virtues of masks and dispel social media posts that point to surgical masks with warnings printed on them saying they don't protect the wearer.

"A hammer doesn't work very well as a screwdriver, but it works pretty well as a hammer," the secretary said. "If everyone is wearing a mask we're keeping our respiratory secretions to ourselves. They work very well for protecting groups of people."

For now, Arkansas officials will keep using the hammers and screwdrivers in the tool kit they do have without hammering people who don't follow right away.

"We will continue to look at tools that work and we will continue to see what is the best way to accomplish the objective of encouraging people to wear masks," the governor said.