Gov. Asa Hutchinson is not only ending the public health emergency in place since March 11, 2020, but he announced Thursday (May 20) an $8.4 million ad campaign to promote vaccinations and a $3.6 million vaccine incentive plan for some state workers.
In the Thursday press conference, Gov. Hutchinson said the public health emergency, which gave him special powers to act during the COVID-19 pandemic, will end May 30. He said the emergency order is being lifted because vaccines are available, case numbers are low, and Arkansans know how to be safe. Also, emergency orders related to telemedicine and liability protections have been enacted into law.
“Everyone knows what to do. It is not an emergency, it is a maintenance of effort in terms of our vaccines and managing the pandemic,” he said.
However, he cautioned against anyone thinking the pandemic is over.
“It is important to understand that we are still in a pandemic. The fact that I am ending the declaration of a public health emergency does not change the fact that we still have the COVID-19 virus in our community. It does not change the fact that our public health system has to continue to deal with it. It doesn’t change the fact that we still need to get vaccinations out,” Gov. Hutchinson said, adding that Arkansans should “continue to take the virus seriously.”
The governor said the focus of his office is on vaccinations. Part of that focus is an $8.4 million advertising campaign, of which $2 million is targeted toward minority populations. One ad includes legendary Razorback basketball player Sidney Moncrief encouraging Arkansans to “take the shot.”
The state also is providing a $100 bonus to executive branch state agency employees who get at least one vaccination, Gov. Hutchinson also announced Thursday. He said there are 25,772 state employees eligible, and if 70% get at least one shot the cost to the state will be $3.6 million. He said the cost will be absorbed by the state budget but he is hoping to be reimbursed through the $1.9 trillion federal American Rescue Plan pushed by President Joe Biden and approved by Congress. The plan included $350 billion to the states to help with COVID-related costs.
Gov. Hutchinson said 43.7% of executive branch state workers have received at least one shot.
“Obviously that’s not where we want it to be. We want it to be higher. We want it to get up to the 70% range,” he said.
In response to a media question, Gov. Hutchinson said state officials are “still studying” ideas on possible vaccination incentives for the general public. Several public and private sector incentives have been announced in recent weeks. Krispy Kreme is offering a free donut per day for those with a vaccination card. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is pushing a $1 million lottery and generous scholarships for state residents who are fully vaccinated. West Virginia is giving $100 savings bonds to state residents ages 16-35 who are fully vaccinated. Several museums and other destinations in New York City are offering free or discounted tickets to those who are fully vaccinated.
Gov. Hutchinson also said he is “hopeful” other non-executive branch state agencies will consider vaccination incentives for their workers.
(Link here for a summary story of the first year of the COVID pandemic in Arkansas.)