As the COVID pandemic marked its first anniversary, Gov. Asa Hutchinson had two words for Arkansans: diligence and vaccination.
By diligence, Gov. Hutchinson said in late March he wants Arkansans to get their vaccinations when it comes their turn. In order to widen eligibility for the shots, Gov. Hutchinson opened vaccine eligibility to people in Phase 1-C, which includes people from 18 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions and essential workers in certain sectors. He did so less than two weeks after starting Phase 1-B, responding to President Joe Biden’s call for states to expand eligibility and his plans to increase production and availability.
By March 21, Arkansas had administered more than 850,000 doses of vaccine in a little more than a month. The state has recorded a total of 328,547 COVID cases since March 2020, according to Health Department data. As of March 21, 2,676 cases were active, compared with 3,190 a week earlier. The Health Department reported a total of 5,533 deaths due to COVID in the period since the end of March 2020.
Gov. Hutchinson said it also was important to move to Phase 1-C in order to keep up demand for the vaccine, to make sure there’s not any gap and to give everyone the best opportunity to get vaccinated. His action added more than 1 million people to the number of those who are vaccine eligible.
About 10% of the state’s population, or a little more than 300,000 people, have been fully immunized against the virus. Arkansas ranks two percentage points below the national average in the number of residents who have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
Gov. Hutchinson said it was important to open the vaccination programs to people in category 1-C because there has been some slowdown in parts of the state on the demand side, particularly in rural parts of the state.
Media are calling that factor “vaccine hesitancy,” which keeps doses in the freezer in some areas instead of going into arms. A majority of states is experiencing disparities in getting the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable communities, a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows. Vulnerable counties tend to have lower vaccination rates, according to the CDC’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” released in late March.
The CDC used a Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) to rank counties based on a combination of certain factors: a high percentage of racial or ethnic minorities, seniors, single-parent households, people living below poverty, mobile homes residents, and people with disabilities, or those without a car, among other characteristics.
The study then looked at vaccine administration data for more than 49 million U.S. residents between December 2020 and March 1 and found that, on average, less vulnerable counties had a vaccination rate 2.5 percentage points higher than counties with high social vulnerability. Researchers found the disparity nationwide.
Although vaccination coverage estimates by county-level social vulnerability varied widely among states, disparities in vaccination coverage were observed in the majority of states, noted the CDC report. They found the largest disparities in counties that ranked high in socioeconomic vulnerability, such as high rates of poverty or unemployment. In the first 2.5 months of the program, vaccination coverage was lower in high-vulnerability counties nationwide, demonstrating that additional efforts are needed to achieve equity in vaccination coverage for those who have been most affected by COVID-19, the authors wrote.
Unfortunately, in terms of overall health that would seem to describe certain parts of Arkansas, In fact, it’s part of a story that we in Arkansas, particularly in the Delta, know too well — high rates of poverty in many counties are accompanied by high rates of chronic disease.
Just a quick look at the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data will tell the tale. BRFSS (often pronounced BUR-fuss by those familiar with it) is a phone survey that gathers data about the health of Arkansas adults aged 18 years and older.
Here’s just a sample of the information available for three Northeast Arkansas counties:
• Percentage of adults who have been told they have heart disease: state of Arkansas, 6.8%; Clay County, 9.9%; Craighead County, 4.7 %; Crittenden County, 7.8%
• Percentage of adults who are smokers: state of Arkansas, 21.4%; Clay, 32.6%, Craighead, 28.5%; Crittenden, 30.6%
• Percentage of adults who have been told they have diabetes: state of Arkansas, 15.1%; Clay, 16.4%; Craighead, 18.9%; Crittenden, 25%
• Percentage of adults who report income of less than $10,000: state of Arkansas, 5.9%, Clay 11.5%; Craighead, 6.8% Crittenden, 13.9%
There is a great deal more information on the Health Department’s website, but the point is clear. Many Arkansans have chronic health problems of the sort that tend to make them vulnerable to COVID. Why add an extra layer of vulnerability by refusing vaccinations?
The governor is due credit for expanding the eligibility by nearly 1 million people. But Arkansas needs to do more. There is at least one PSA airing on TV around the state encouraging people to get vaccinated, but to reach an acceptable level, we need to consider well-publicized community events, mobile clinics and any other large-scale vaccination events.
I’m ready to return to my ordinary life. For that to occur, it will take extraordinary measures.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.