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New case numbers skyrocket in state

Thursday was another record-breaking day for the state of Arkansas with nearly 13,000 new cases of COVID-19 reported in state.

After Arkansas recorded nearly 11,000 new cases on Wednesday, the Arkansas Department of Health reported Thursday’s numbers had climbed even higher with 12,990 new cases added.

Craighead and Greene counties saw the largest jumps in cases locally, with 545 new cases reported in Craighead County and 468 added in Greene County.

The active case count in Craighead County rose to 4,203, and statewide the number of active cases increased by 8,214 to reach 79,346. No deaths were reported locally, but the statewide death toll rose by 18 to 9,390.

According to the ADH, 1,251 COVID patients were hospitalized, up 66 from Wednesday, and of those, 170 were on ventilators. In Northeast Arkansas, 205 patients were reported as COVID-positive with 17 on ventilators.

The active case count for Greene County rose to 1,221. Mississippi County reported 227 new cases and 1,202 active cases, while Poinsett County recorded 106 new infections and 767 active cases.

Elsewhere in Northeast Arkansas, Cross County reported 89 new cases and 493 active cases; Lawrence County, 44 new cases and 279 active cases; Clay County, 34 new cases and 235 active cases; Jackson County, 29 new cases and 257 active cases; and Randolph County, 23 new cases and 260 active cases.

Flooding main topic at CRDD meeting

CASH — Flooding has been an issue for the residents of the Cache River area since the early 20th century, and it has only gotten worse.

Farmers in attendance at the annual meeting of the Cache River Drainage District of Craighead, Jackson and Lawrence counties had many questions and concerns on Thursday at the Cash Community Building.

Several topics were discussed, with an emphasis placed on ongoing maintenance issues.

Shannon Davis, chairman of the three-member commission that governs the drainage district, asked Brad Hessling, the lead contractor for Hessling Construction, how soon they can begin working again this year.

Hessling said that it was dependent on the amount of snow the area gets this weekend, but they should have a dragline started in a couple weeks.

Joe Christian, CRDD commissioner, reminded everyone in attendance that they could not start work when the river is up. The dragline will start at the south end and go north.

There was also some discussion about miscommunication last year.

“We need better communication with landowners,” Davis said after local farmer Mike Allen mentioned that damage to his property was never repaired after work was done last year.

John Easley, lead engineer from Associated Engineering of Jonesboro, said they hope to run draglines on both sides of the river from east to west from Highway 226 to Highway 91. He noted they will be using four excavators.

Commissioners Davis and Christian reassured the farmers that they were not going to be digging on the banks, and they would work the outside parts first.

They also discussed the Nature Conservancy Project.

Breegan Anderson, spokeswoman for the project, said they were working with Arkansas State University to figure out which ditches to work on.

She said they are already looking for potential funding to help fix ditches around the area and are constantly looking for other funding, as well.

Wayne Carlton asked how their help would affect private landowners and if farmers would have to allow people on their private land after accepting help.

Anderson reassured him that private land would remain private.

Next, Davis stated that Wes Copeland with BA Engineering of Nashville, Tenn., the head engineering firm, had contacted him about the clean-out in Grubbs, as well, stating they would help out where they could.

Christian said they anticipate getting help from government stimulus funding, as well, but pointed out that Jackson County collects no taxes to assist with flooding issues and yet expects the drainage district to maintain that area. He also noted that Grubbs is a choke-point along the Cache River.

Lastly, they spoke about helping farmers install pipes to help with flooding. Hessling said if the farmers would buy the piping that they would help install the pipes for drainage.

Attorney Rhonda Davis said farmers have to understand that nobody wants anything to go wrong, but there will always be issues that they have to face dealing with these matters.

The CRDD was formed in 1916 and includes 39.75 miles of ditches and 120,876 acres.

COVID-19 tests in high demand

As distribution of free at-home COVID-19 tests started Wednesday around the region, it became apparent quickly that the supply would not be able to keep up with the demand.

The Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library began its distribution using an appointment system, with individuals allowed to receive one box, containing two tests, per day, and families up to three boxes per day.

Brandi Hodges, public relations manger for the library, said they received several cases of tests, all of which were distributed on the first day.

“We have been so busy,” she said. “We had a line wrapped around the building.”

On Thursday, the Jonesboro library was restocked and had moved away from scheduling appointments.

“Due to the overwhelming demand for the tests, we made the decision to switch to a first-come, first-served basis to make it easier on the public and our staff members,” Hodges said.

According to a press release, the library will receive tests in waves from the local health unit and will post updates on their social media pages when tests are available.

When the library has tests, distribution will take place from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1-5 p.m. or until the tests run out.

“Pickup is taking place along Haven Street in front of the bookmobile garage,” Hodges said. “You must stay in your vehicle and wear a mask to pick up a test. Tests will not be given out inside of the library.”

In Lawrence County, the health unit is distributing tests with assistance from the library, as well as the cities of Hoxie and Walnut Ridge.

Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp said the response has been unbelievable, but the distribution has gone smooth and those receiving the tests have been grateful.

“We’ve gone through 450 test kits, which is the equivalent of 900 tests,” he said. “They came in three different sessions over two days. All 900 tests were given out in a total of about three to four hours tops, probably three hours.”

The tests, which are being funded through the state’s COVID response budget, are being distributed through a number of sites, including the public libraries in Jonesboro, Paragould, Lake City, Trumann, Lepanto, Marked Tree, Harrisburg, Walnut Ridge, Weiner and Pocahontas. Mission Outreach in Paragould and the Hispanic Center in Jonesboro are also distributing the tests.

Instructions on how to use and read the test results are included in the box. The Arkansas Department of Health advises everyone to report their home results. This can be done by calling the COVID-19 hotline at 1-800-803-7847.

Those who are feeling sick are advised to visit a doctor for testing rather than using the at-home tests being distributed.

FBI shoots, kills individual during action in Jonesboro

JONESBORO — FBI agents shot and killed a person Wednesday in the 1100 block of Falls Street, according to a news release.

According to the FBI, “During the course of a court-authorized law enforcement operation on Wednesday, FBI agents were involved in an agent-involved shooting. At this point in time, no FBI agents are injured, and one individual is deceased. The scene is currently being processed by the FBI’s Evidence Response Team who will be on-site for several hours. There is no threat to public safety at this time, but we are asking people to avoid the area.

“An FBI Shooting Incident Review Team (SIRT) will handle the agent-involved shooting investigation. The SIRT will conduct a thorough, factual and objective investigation of the events. In the interest of protecting the investigation’s integrity, we cannot comment any further.”

The FBI wouldn’t say if the person was a male or female.

The Jonesboro Police Department and Craighead County Sheriff’s Office assisted with blocking off the street during the operation.

According to an FBI spokesman, all information about the shooting won’t be released for several weeks.

The release of any information will be made by either the U.S. Attorney’s Office or a prosecuting attorney’s office.

Ethics office opinion challenges public defenders

JONESBORO — An opinion by the state Supreme Court’s Office of Ethics Counsel on Jan. 6 places public defenders in a tough spot, said M. Brian Miles, managing public defender for Craighead, Poinsett, Greene and Clay counties, on Thursday.

The opinion, by Stark Ligon, ethics counsel for the office, states, “The trial attorney confronted with a caseload or workload producing or reasonably likely to produce ethical violations by the attorney should refuse or decline to accept additional court appointments or assigned clients from the public defender office until the trial attorney’s caseload or overall workload is reduced to the level the trial attorney can ethically and effectively handle.”

Miles said he or one of his public defenders could potentially be sanctioned for overloads.

Miles said one of the specialty courts, STAR Court, for people convicted of driving while intoxicated, won’t be manned by his staff anymore.

“We don’t have the personnel to man it,” Miles said

He said no decision has been made about the other specialty courts: mental health; veterans; juvenile drug; and drug.

Miles said for Craighead County he has himself and Scott Davidson as the only full-time public defenders. The office also includes six part-time attorneys who work 20 hours a week.

Miles said his office currently has 728 active felony defendants and picks up between 30-40 misdemeanor cases each week from District Court.

He said the ethics office advised that full-time public defenders be assigned 150 felony cases and 75 for part-time defenders.

As an incentive to work for the public defenders office, part-time attorneys are paid full-time benefits by the state, Miles said.

His office has “always had a high caseload,” Miles said, adding that it makes it difficult to fully investigate cases

He said that if someone is convicted of a felony they can appeal and cite Rule 37, claiming the defendant received ineffective counsel at trial.

The excessive caseloads for public defenders has increased since courts in the state began returning to jury trials last summer after they were suspended in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Gregg Parrish, executive direction of the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission in Little Rock.

“The numbers are staggering across the state,” Parrish said of the caseloads.

He said public defenders are appointed for 87-93 percent of all defendants in Arkansas. That number rises to 97 percent in poorer counties like in the Arkansas Delta.

Parrish said he told the Arkansas Senate Judiciary Committee that adding judges and specialty courts are increasing the work burden for public defenders.

He also advocates pay parity between the public defender offices and prosecuting attorneys offices. Parrish said veteran public defenders often move to the prosecutors offices because the pay is better.

Miles said he hopes the state will increase funding for public defenders to add more and increase pay.

“Salary issues are bogging us down,” he said. “We’ve had eight part-time public defenders leave in the past few years.”

Miles said he and other managing public defenders from around the state plan to meet with Parrish in the near future to discuss the opinion by the ethics office.