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story.lead_photo.caption Matthew Hicks, director of the Sebastian County Health Unit, right, speaks while Sebastian County Emergency Management Director Kendall Beam, left, listens during the Fort Smith Board of Directors study session Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. (Thomas Saccente/Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

FORT SMITH -- As the covid-19 pandemic continues, the city has expressed willingness to assist with the inoculation process.

The city Board of Directors discussed the city's role in helping to distribute and administer the covid-19 vaccine to residents during a study session Tuesday.

Arkansas is in Phase 1-A of its covid-19 vaccine distribution plan, according to the Arkansas Department of Health website. This means the vaccine is available for health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities, in addition to EMS, fire and law enforcement serving as first-responders, primary and urgent care, college/university student health center, K-12 health clinics and school nurses, dental clinics, pharmacies, home health, private/personal and hospice care, corrections officers, and dialysis and blood donation centers.

More groups of people will be able to get the vaccine after the state moves into phases 1-B and 1-C of the vaccination plan, which the Department of Health states are estimated to begin in February and April, respectively. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced on Tuesday that Arkansans who are 70 and older and employees of schools and child care centers, who are covered under Phase 1-B, will be eligible to receive the vaccine starting Monday.

Tuesday's discussion took place as a result of Ward 3 City Director Lavon Morton requesting it during the board's meeting Jan. 5.

"The Fort Smith Fire Department and the Fort Smith Police Department, Chief [Phil] Christensen and Chief [Danny] Baker respectively and all other city staff, stand ready to assist with the orderly and efficient administration of the covid-19 vaccine however that might be needed," Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman wrote in a memo.

Dingman said he, Morton, Mayor George McGill, Jurena L. Storm, who is government affairs liaison for McGill's office, and Sebastian County Judge David Hudson participated in a call concerning vaccine distribution recently. According to him, the county is the "emergency management arm for the state" within Sebastian County, although the city is willing and able to help whenever and wherever it can. However, there are two problems.

"One is the availability of the vaccine itself through the various entities that are authorized to dispense it, but then also the communication to individuals in the community so they understand where they fit in in the phasing and those sort of things," Dingman said.

Matthew Hicks, administrator of the Sebastian County Health Unit, said over the past several months, he and Kendall Beam, Sebastian County Emergency Management director, have been discussing potential upgrades or changes to plans with the health unit's mass flu clinics. However, the distribution of covid-19 vaccines comes with certain logistical issues going back to both availability and what will be allowed by the state, among other factors.

"And so right now, at the health department level for the county, we're really limited on the information that we have," Hicks said. "The state is working on putting some plans together, and I'm sure that we'll start to get wind of those here in the next coming weeks to help facilitate vaccine administration."

Beam said with Hutchinson's announcement Tuesday, more vaccines will be able to be distributed more quickly. In addition, all of the first-responders in the county have had access to the covid-19 vaccine, with the county having had "great success" in getting the vaccine to them.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Andy Davis contributed to this report. Thomas Saccente can be reached by email at tsaccente@nwadg.com.

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