Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday touted progress in Arkansas' coronavirus vaccination efforts but said the state needs to get the shots to more residents age 70 and older before it can make them available to additional population groups, which he hopes to do by March 1.
"We have to get further into the 70-plus population," Hutchinson said. "Right now there's too much of a waiting list, there's a greater need there, and so we want to get deeper into that population before we move into additional segments."
Arkansas Department of Health spokesman Gavin Lesnick said 122,485 Arkansans age 70 and older had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Tuesday and that 19,350 had received two doses.
The number who had received at least one dose represents about 36% of the 336,500 people estimated to be in that age group.
The number who had received two doses is about 6% of that population.
At his weekly news conference on the pandemic, Hutchinson also said that 11,600 doses of vaccine will be available at 58 Walmart stores across the state starting Friday, part of a federal program.
Those doses are in addition to the state's regular allocation of 45,325 vaccine doses being distributed to pharmacies, hospitals and other providers for the initial shots of the two-dose regimens.
Hutchinson also said the White House coronavirus response team announced during a conference call Tuesday that 1 million doses will be distributed nationally to federally funded community health centers across the country.
He didn't yet have details on how many doses Arkansas' 12 centers will get.
Hutchinson spoke as the state's count of covid-19 cases grew by 1,475, an increase that was bigger than the one the day before but down by 35 cases from the number added to the state's tallies the previous Tuesday, Feb. 2.
The number of people hospitalized in the state with the virus fell for the second day in a row, dropping by two, to 775, but it remained up from the 750 patients who were hospitalized as of Saturday.
After rising by 16 on Monday, the number of patients who were on ventilators fell by five, to 137.
But the number of virus patients who were in intensive care units as of 2 p.m. rose by seven, to 276.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 42, to 5,148.
Hutchinson said about half of the state's school employees have had access to the shots and that all of the state's nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have had at least one clinic.
Under Phase 1-A of the state's vaccination effort that began in December, health care workers, first responders and residents and workers at long-term care facilities were the first to become eligible for vaccination.
The state last month began making the shots available to Arkansans age 70 and older and employees of schools, including higher-education institutions, and child care centers, all of whom fall into Phase 1-B of the state's plan.
"Essential priority workers," including those working in grocery stores and factories, also fall into Phase 1-B but are not yet eligible for the shots.
"I do believe that by March 1, we will be able to make additional steps into 1-B, but we're going to be monitoring it between now and then to see if that needs to be adjusted in any way," Hutchinson said Tuesday.
He declined to say what groups within Phase 1-B would be the next to become eligible.
"We'll keep you informed," Hutchinson said. "Otherwise they'll be lining up early."
Hutchinson has said he hopes to complete Phase 1-B by April.
That would allow the state to start Phase 1-C, in which the shots would be available to people 65 and older, people with health conditions putting them at increased risk of developing severe complications from the virus, and other "essential workers."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated Tuesday that Arkansas' weekly allocation of vaccine will increase next week for the third week in a row.
After increasing by 16% last week and 5% this week, the state's allocation will increase next week by an additional 4.6%, to 47,425 doses, according to the CDC.
All of the increases have come from the state's allocation of the Moderna vaccine, which will increase from 26,800 initial doses this week to 28,900 next week.
Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, said in a briefing Tuesday that the increases have been due to ramped-up production.
In a development that could further increase the supply of available doses, Hutchinson also said he learned during the White House call that the CDC is expected to issue guidance allowing vaccine originally designated to provide booster shots to be used to provide initial doses for other people when the originally intended recipients fail to show up for appointments to receive the second dose.
He said the guidance will allow the doses initially designated as booster shots to be repurposed 10 days after the booster shot was due.
"I think this is a smart approach; I think it will be helpful here in Arkansas," Hutchinson said.
But he said it "will be a very small number of people" who are affected.
"It emphasizes get the vaccine, get your second dose, make sure you follow up," he said.
As the production of vaccine increases, Hutchinson said, he told federal officials Tuesday that he's "grateful for the partnership" but that he'd prefer to see the extra doses go toward the allocation under the state's control rather than to federal programs.
"We're very efficient in getting it out, and so give it to us and we can make the decisions as to making sure that it's equitable, which we're working toward," Hutchinson said.
"The efficiency rate is best if you simply coordinate it and give it through the states and increase our allocation."
Arkansas is one of 22 states where vaccinations in Walmarts and Sam's Clubs will start start Friday under the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, Walmart Inc. announced.
The Bentonville-based retailer said in a news release Tuesday that more than 1,000 Walmart and Sam's Club pharmacies are receiving vaccine allocations through the program.
A list of stores and clubs in the states administering the vaccines under the federal agreement can be found at corporate.walmart.com/COVID-vaccine.
Those eligible for the shots under state and local guidelines can make appointments through the Walmart and Sam's Club websites.
Vaccine supply will vary by state, Walmart said. While the number of vaccinations will be limited initially, the company said, it's expected to increase each week.
Because some people may have difficulty getting to in-store clinics, Walmart said it will work with other providers and organizations to expand access to off-site vaccination clinics. The company said it will provide information on these alternative sites as details become available.
Walmart said it worked with the CDC to identify stores at which to provide vaccinations. They considered factors such as population density, customer demographics, infection rates and local health care availability in making these decisions, the company said.
Hutchinson said the stores in Arkansas are expected to receive at least 11,600 doses each week.
HEALTH CENTER DOSES
According to a White House fact sheet, the vaccinations at the health centers will be "phased in, with the first centers able to start ordering vaccines" as early as next week.
"The initial phase will include at least one Community Health Center in each state, expanding to 250 centers in the coming weeks," the fact sheet says.
On its website, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration said the initial centers that will receive the vaccine "specialize in caring for particularly hard-to-reach and disproportionately affected populations" and serve a "large volume" of patients who are homeless, live in public housing, are seasonal agricultural workers or have limited English proficiency.
"Like other programs recently announced, the federal government is providing vaccines to health centers as a way to increase access to vaccines for health centers serving the nation's underserved communities and disproportionately affected populations," the agency said on its website.
"HRSA and CDC will analyze vaccine allocation, distribution, and uptake data to assess onboarding of additional health centers and to inform future vaccine allocation efforts."
The country's 1,400 community health centers, which operate about 13,000 sites, provide health care in areas that lack other providers or have high numbers of people who lack insurance and have health problems.
Patients pay fees that vary according to income.
LaShannon Spencer, chief executive officer of Community Health Centers of Arkansas, an association representing Arkansas centers, said she doesn't expect the state's centers to receive their first doses for three or four weeks.
She said she hopes to learn early next week how many doses the centers will receive. Information on which centers in Arkansas will receive the vaccine wasn't available Tuesday.
"We urge people to be patient after this announcement," Spencer said. "It will take some time to ramp up, but we're truly excited to participate for the good of the state as well as the nation."
Pharmacies and other providers participating in the vaccine effort being coordinated by the state had received 601,875 doses of vaccines as of Tuesday morning, an increase of 40,725 doses from the total as of a day earlier.
They reported having administered 392,212 of those, up 12,588 from the number a day earlier.
In addition, Walgreens and CVS reported administering 20,904 doses, an increase of 967 from the total a day earlier.
The two pharmacy chains were allocated 49,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine for residents and workers in Arkansas long-term-care facilities as part of a federal program.
They have since made some of the doses available to eligible members of the broader public after it was discovered that they had more than they needed to cover the facilities.
The number of doses reported to have been delivered and administered includes some booster shots.
The actual number of shots given is higher than the Health Department's figures because providers have three days to report the doses they administer.
On its website, the CDC reported that 305,917 Arkansans, or about 10.1% of the state's population, had received at least one dose of the vaccine.
That included 95,202 of the state's residents, or 3.2% of the population, who had received both doses.
The state ranked 15th among states and the District of Columbia in the percentage of residents who had received at least one vaccine dose and 22nd in the percentage who had received both doses.
Nationally, 9.9% of people had received at least one dose of vaccine, and 3% had received two doses.
Within Arkansas, the percentage of residents age 16 and older who had received at least one dose ranged from 16.7% in Cleveland County to 3.2% in Miller County, according to a Health Department report.
Among the state's largest counties, the rate was 14.7% in Pulaski County, 8% in Benton County, 10% in Washington County, 9.2% in Sebastian County, 14.2% in Faulkner and Saline counties, 15% in Craighead County and 13.9% in Garland County.
Statewide, 13% of residents age 16 and older had received at least one dose and 4.4% had received both doses.
'EYE OF THE HURRICANE'
Although Arkansas' average daily growth in coronavirus cases and the number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals has fallen from the highs they reached early last month, researchers with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health warned that "daily new cases remain high."
"The state is averaging 1,500 newly diagnosed infections per day, a rate just a few weeks ago we would have found very alarming," the researchers said in their latest forecast report, dated Friday and released Tuesday.
Comparing the decline in new cases to being in "the eye of the hurricane," they said it will take three or four months for vaccines to have their full effect on reducing the virus's spread. In the meantime, they said, they are "relatively certain" that a more contagious variant of the virus discovered in the United Kingdom is circulating in the state, although that had not been confirmed through testing as of Tuesday.
"With the beginning of the vaccination program in the state, we are even thinking about the end of the pandemic," the researchers said in the report.
"But, like the eye of a hurricane, the lull will eventually pass and the full force of the storm will return."
By March 31, the report predicted, the state's death toll among confirmed cases will rise to 5,919, an increase of 2,004 from the number as of Jan. 31.
Health Secretary Jose Romero said more contagious variants of the virus "will eventually get here," but he disagreed with the comparison to being in the eye of a storm.
He called it an "important milestone" that the combined percentage of the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests and antigen tests of Arkansans that were positive for the virus over a rolling seven-day period had recently fallen below 10% for the first time since early November.
He also noted that the number of cases in the state that are considered active has been falling.
"Things are moving in the right direction," Romero said. "We can keep them moving as long as we continue our mitigation strategies," such as wearing masks in public and keeping a safe distance from people from other households.
ACTIVE CASES FALL
The average number of cases added to the state's tallies each day over a rolling seven-day period fell Tuesday by five, to 1,549.
The cases that were added Tuesday included 820 that were confirmed through PCR tests.
The other 655 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through antigen tests.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 308,848.
That comprised 245,233 confirmed cases and 63,615 probable ones.
The number of cases that were considered active fell by 422, to 14,898, as more than 1,800 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
Pulaski County had the largest number of new cases, 224, followed by Benton County, which had 121, Washington County, which had 85, Lonoke County, which had 80, and Garland County, which had 77.
Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department's count of cases rose by six.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said the Cummins Unit in Lincoln County and Randall L. Williams Unit in Pine Bluff each had one new case.
That brought the total number of cases among inmates to 1,147 at the Cummins Unit and 322 at the Pine Bluff lockup.
Only six cases at the Cummins Unit and one at the Randal L. Williams Unit were active as of Tuesday, however.
The state's death toll rose by 38, to 4,119, among confirmed cases and by four, to 1,029, among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths rose by 19, to 1,963.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 75, to 14,174.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by six, to 1,464.
Information for this article was contributed by Serenah McKay of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.