Gov. Asa Hutchinson begins “Community Covid Conversations” to answer concerns about COVID-19 and vaccinations
By BCN Executive Director Wesley Brown – July 9, 2021 – As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spike to a level not seen since late 2020 and early 2021, Arkansas has become the nation’s hotbed for the rising Delta variant virus that is spread rapidly through the unvaccinated ranks.
The unprecedent and threat of a possible third wave of new cases and hospitalizations has led Gov. Asa Hutchinson to begin a series of “townhall-like” meetings statewide to hear first-hand the concerns of Arkansans about COVID-19 and vaccinations.
The first of the governor’s “Community Covid Conversations” was held on Thursday (July 8) in Cabot to answer questions in the hope of encouraging more Arkansans to receive the vaccine. Hutchinson has set a goal of vaccinating 50% of Arkansas’ 3 million-plus population by the end of July. As of July 10, however, only % 39.5 or 1,010,559 Arkansans aged 12 or older have been fully immunized, according to the Health Department’s COVID-19 daily dashboard.
Nearly 100 people attended Governor Asa Hutchinson’s first Community COVID Conversation, which he held in the Veterans Park Events Center in Cabot. Hutchinson said he launched the statewide “listening” tour in response to the recent dramatic increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases in Arkansas and the low vaccination rate. He will lead four more events next week.
“This is a chance for me to hear your concerns and ideas,” said Hutchinson. “It’s a chance for me to continue to encourage people to get vaccinated. This is the challenge we face. A month ago, the number of our active COVID cases and our hospitalizations had declined. We were increasing our vaccinations across the state. We were very optimistic about the return to normalcy.
“Then over the past month, our vaccination rate stalled at about 40%, and the Delta variant showed up. This right-left punch has sidetracked our return to normalcy.”
Hutchinson’s statewide tour comes only days after the popular Republican governor said during a nationwide CNN interview on the Fourth of July that he does not believe Arkansas will see a third COVID-19 surge since the pandemic began in March 2020. In the interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, Hutchinson said the solution to the recent spike is not to impose new restrictions but to increase the number of unvaccinated Arkansans.
“It is our younger adults that are getting hit with the Delta variant, which is more contagious and has more severe consequences,” Hutchinson told the CNN anchor. “And that is the concern that is causing the increase in hospitalizations.”
Delta variant blues
On Friday, ADH reported a whopping 1155 new cases, 497 hospitalizations, and four additional deaths, bringing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began to 355,460. Friday’s unprecedented Delta variant spread was the third straight day where more than 1,000 Arkansans contracted the virus, levels not seen since late February. Also, hospital beds are quickly filling up again with nearly 1,500 new hospitalizations since the Fourth of July weekend, Health Department officials said. Altogether, there has been 5,948 deaths in Arkansas since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
In his weekly press briefing earlier in the week, Hutchinson said although over one million Arkansans have been fully vaccinated, that is not enough to stop the recent COVID-19, especially the Delta variant that is running rampant through Arkansas’ unvaccinated population.
“We are losing ground …,” said Hutchinson who ended Arkansas’ COVID-19 state of emergency on May 30.
The CNN appearance for Arkansas’ term-limited governor came on the same day that President Joe Biden also encouraged all Americans to get the COVID-19 shot during his Independence Day speech. Biden highlighted the fact that 300 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been delivered to Americans in his first 150 days of office. However, the Democratic president also acknowledged that the administration fell well short of its goal of administering at least one shot to every adult by July 4.
“As I said in my Independence Day address to the nation, we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from this deadly virus,” said Biden. “But our fight against this virus is not over. Right now, as I speak to you, millions of Americans are still unvaccinated and unprotected. And because of that, their communities are at risk. Their friends are at risk. The people they care about are at risk. This is an even bigger concern because of the Delta variant.”
As of July 8, 54.6% of the nation’s 330 million-plus population had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Of that total, 158.3 million or 47.5% of the nation has been fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control’s (CDC) COVID data tracker.
At the same time, the CDC said the highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant continues to spread across the U.S. at a rapid pace. Early data suggest that B.1.617.2 now makes up more than 50% of COVID-19 cases. In some parts of the country, this percentage is even higher, especially in areas with low vaccination rates, including Arkansas.
“This rapid rise is concerning and threatens the progress the United States has made toward ending the pandemic,” the CDC warned.
Earlier on June 15, the CDC first announced classification of the B.1.617.2 as a “variant of concern” because it spreads more easily. Besides the Delta variant, there are three other COVID-19 offshoots in the U.S., including the Alpha variant discovered in December 2020, and the Beta and Gamma varieties detected in January 2021.
“The emergence and spread of variants also have the potential to chip away at our nation’s progress to end this pandemic. The spread of the more transmissible B.1.617.2 variant combined with the U.S. population that remains unvaccinated leaves many people at risk of infection,” said the CDC. “With B.1.617.2 now spreading across the country and infecting people worldwide, it’s more important than ever that all eligible people get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
According to the CDC, as the vaccine has become widely available, younger people have been the most hesitant to get it. In November 2020, the average age of those hospitalized with COVID-19 was 64. As people that age and older are taking the vaccine, the average age of those hospitalized has declined to 54. The average age of those who have died from COVID has decreased from 78 to 66.
During his press conference earlier in the week, Hutchinson also encouraged employers to provide paid time off for employees to get the vaccination and for those who may need time off to recover from a reaction to the vaccine. He also noted that the 2,156,928 doses of the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson vaccines already administered in Arkansas are effective against all COVID variants.
Like the CDC, Gov. Hutchinson and state health officials on Friday also warned state residents that the Delta variant is more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus, and the symptoms are worse.
“All three of the available vaccines will protect against COVID. The antibodies from a previous case of COVID do not protect against the variant, and health experts advise those who have contracted COVID get a vaccine,” Hutchinson’s press office said in a statement. “The vaccine reduces the symptoms in those who do catch it, and 90% of those aren’t hospitalized. The vaccine cuts the chance of death to almost zero.”
In Cabot on Thursday speaking to a largely suburban, white population, Hutchinson told the audience that Arkansas has chosen the path of personal responsibility over government rules. “The state is wide open. We aren’t mandating masks or vaccinations. We know what we must do, and for the most part, Arkansans have done the hard work. The big task before us now is to vaccinate more Arkansans,” said Hutchinson who was recently named chairman of the National Governors Association and is increasingly seen as a possible Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential race.
Next week, Hutchinson will hold Community COVID Conversations on Monday in Batesville; on Tuesday in Blytheville and Forrest City; and Thursday in Texarkana. He also will address the need for vaccinations at previously scheduled events in Northwest Arkansas.
Black folk and booster shots
As Hutchinson takes his message statewide, marketing to mostly Black and minority audiences has been funneled through the “Vaccinate the Natural State” campaign. That public-private partnership includes, ADH, Arkansas Blue Cross, the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, State Chamber of Commerce, Northwest Arkansas Council, UAMS and Walmart.
That partnership has scheduled a mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Antioch Full Gospel Baptist Church on Saturday in North Little Rock. The group has schedule similar events across Central Arkansas through the end of July.
Separately, the CDC and Food and Drug Administration on Thursday released a joint statement saying Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this time. The notice comes as pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. announced Thursday that it was making a booster shot available for the more than 100 mutations of the COVID-19 virus spreading across the globe, including the Delta variant.
Pfizer, whose COVID-19 vaccine was the first to receive full approval for patient use by the U.S. government in late December, said it plans to seek emergency authorization from the FDA for a third booster dose of its virus antidote. However, CDC and FDA officials said people who are fully vaccinated are protected from severe disease and death, including from the variants currently circulating in the country such as Delta.
“People who are not vaccinated remain at risk. Virtually all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are among those who are unvaccinated. We encourage Americans who have not yet been vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible to protect themselves and their community,” said two federal agencies that are housing within the mammoth U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Both agencies, along with the CDC’s National Institute of Health, said they are engaged in a “science-based, rigorous process” to study whether or when a booster might be necessary.
“This process takes into account laboratory data, clinical trial data, and cohort data – which can include data from specific pharmaceutical companies, but does not rely on those data exclusively,” the agencies said. “We continue to review any new data as it becomes available and will keep the public informed. We are prepared for booster doses if and when the science demonstrates that they are needed.”
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