Arkansas prepares to welcome students as COVID-19 cases and deaths ramp to record levels

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,092 views 

Arkansas is experiencing the worst COVID-19 surge since the pandemic began, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday (Aug. 10) he doesn’t support a statewide mask mandate or changing the start dates for schools.

During the last 24 hours, the number of cases has increased by 2,620 and the number of deaths is up 24 to 6,334. An estimated 91.86% of those dying now are not vaccinated while 8.14% of those dying are vaccinated, the governor said. Only 27,000 of the state’s nearly 630,000 Medicaid recipients have received the vaccine, a paltry 4.3%. Reimbursements for doctor referred vaccinations will be increased from $40 to $100 to encourage more physicians to recommend vaccination.

“That is extremely, extremely low,” Hutchinson said. “It’s a challenge for us with this vulnerable population.”

The governor pleaded with non-vaccinated residents, those 12 years and older, to get the vaccine as the state’s medical systems have been overwhelmed. As of Monday, there were only eight available ICU beds. He noted that in August of 2020 the number of children under the age of 12 only made up about 12% of cases in the state. That has ballooned to 19% and it will continue to grow.

While the numbers are near the all-time peaks for COVID-19 infections earlier this winter, Hutchinson said he thinks the situation now is much worse. The Delta variant is much more transmissible, he added. State officials are working with federal authorities to find ways to increase ICU bed space.

On a positive note, the governor said overall vaccinations have topped 1.1 million in Arkansas, a 4,380 increase since Monday. Hutchinson said President Joe Biden called him Monday to offer support for the state’s efforts in tackling the crisis.

Despite the dire numbers and a judge blocking a law passed by the Arkansas Legislature to prohibit mask mandates, Hutchinson said he has no interest in enacting a state mask use. He did say, however, he will retain his own counsel if the judge’s order is challenged in the Arkansas Supreme Court or if Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge takes action. Hutchinson is technically a party in the lawsuit that was brought to overturn the law because he signed it into law, a decision that he has said he now regrets.

“I do not support a mask mandate. Vaccines are the way out of this,” the governor said. “I don’t think a mask mandate is a useful tool.”

The governor’s stance came as the Health Policy Board of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said in a statement Tuesday that with the Delta variant spiking across Arkansas, all K-12 schools, colleges, and universities in the state should start the school year with indoor mask requirements for students, teachers, and staff members, regardless of vaccination status.

The board also recommended that schools consider requesting waivers from the Arkansas Department of Education to delay the start of the school year, in addition to other recommendations.

“The ACHI Health Policy Board calls on school boards to adopt indoor mask requirements for the next 30 days for all students, teachers, and staff, regardless of vaccination status, consistent with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mask requirements should be subject to extension based on viral spread within the school or the school’s community. To seek to make schools safe for all students and personnel, schools should also invest in building ventilation, testing, cleaning and disinfection to prepare for the school year and encourage and support those who are eligible to become protected through vaccination,” the board said in a released statement.

When asked if he supported the judge’s decision to block the anti-mask law, Arkansas Secretary of Education Johnny Key remained non-committal. He said he wants to wait and see how the legal process played out. He did note that the Centers for Disease Control were recommending that all children wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. Key emphasized it was a recommendation only.

Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero said the number of vaccinated children from the ages of 12 to 18 is alarming. Only one in five, about 20%, have been fully vaccinated while 36% have received at least one dose. He said all eligible children should get vaccinated and those 12 and under should wear masks when in public.

Key said the state is about to start a program, “Stop the hesitation and get the vaccination.” It will target students in the 12-18 age range.

As the pandemic rages, researchers with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) have found that trust in vaccines, fear of infection, and race or ethnicity play a large role in whether or not people will get a COVID-19 vaccine, particularly when looking at socio-demographic factors. In the study, “COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy: Race/Ethnicity, Trust and Fear,” researchers discovered that only about one in five, 21%, reported vaccine hesitancy.

However, when looking at socio-demographic factors, the findings were much more pronounced across age, sex, race and ethnicity, income and education, the study found. Research subjects who were younger, African American, lower income and those who had some college or a technical degree were more likely to report hesitancy as opposed to those who were older, white, higher income and who had a four-year college degree.

Prevalence of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy was highest among African Americans (50%), respondents with household income less than $25,000 (30.68%), people with some college education (32.17%), people with little to no fear of infection from COVID-19 (62.50%), and people with low trust in vaccines in general (55.84%).

Trust is a major factor in people’s hesitancy to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Dr. Don Willis, co-principal investigator and lead author on the research study, which was released Tuesday.

“It’s like you’re hanging on to the edge of a cliff and someone throws you a rope,” Willis said. “You’re terrified to fall, but you are also not sure if you can trust the strength of the rope or the person that threw you the rope.”