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Governor given covid shot; state starts new phase

1,109 new cases 2nd-lowest single-day increase in 2021 by John Moritz, Neal Earley, Rachel Herzog | January 19, 2021 at 5:00 a.m.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson arrives Tuesday Sept. 29, 2020 in Little Rock for his weekly covid-19 briefing at the state Capitol. See more photos at arkansasonline.com/930governor/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Health officials in Arkansas reported the second-lowest one-day increase in new cases in 2021 on Monday, as the state kicked off a new phase of its vaccination plan.

The state entered what it calls Phase 1-B of vaccinations on Monday, opening up the shot to people age 70 and older as well as school employees, including child care workers and higher-education employees.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson received his first dose of the vaccine on Monday, alongside his wife, Susan Hutchinson, and Health Secretary Jose Romero. Four teachers also received the vaccine at the event at the Arkansas Department of Health.

"I've always said, whenever it was our turn, we would take the vaccine," the governor, a 70-year-old Republican, said. "We can get through this covid pandemic by everyone taking the vaccine when it is their turn."

When it was over, he remarked, "It was better than the flu shot."

Romero gave remarks in Spanish, explaining to the Hispanic community that the vaccine is safe and important to get.

Nona Whittaker, a teacher at Romine Elementary School in Little Rock, said she was getting vaccinated "because I want to encourage everyone to take the vaccine, it's very important."

The governor said the state is set to receive about 55,000 doses of the vaccine today, and with Arkansas' population of more than 3 million, "there's going to be some challenges and patience required."

The vaccine is being administered in the state in large-scale hospital drives and as well as through appointments at community pharmacies, in order to reach both urban and rural Arkansans, Hutchinson said.

VACCINE ROLLOUT

On Monday, pharmacists reported wait lists far exceeding the number of doses they received this week.

"We've got the manpower, it's just an issue of having enough doses," said Jesse Pruitt, a pharmacist at Park West Pharmacy in Little Rock.

Pruitt said his business is still awaiting a shipment of about 100 doses of the vaccine to come in either today or Wednesday, and already has enough patients on the wait list to use up that supply by Friday. So far, he said, the pharmacy has given out about 350 total doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna variants of the vaccine.

Despite the limited supplies, pharmacies around Arkansas have not reported long lines or a rush of patients seeking walk-up appointments, according to Arkansas Pharmacists Association Chief Executive Officer John Vinson.

"If it's happening I'm not hearing about it," Vinson said. "And it's because pharmacists have been very proactive about getting the word out, setting appointments and setting expectations."

Hutchinson visited the vaccination clinic set up by the Kavanaugh Pharmacy inside a vacant storefront in Little Rock's Heights neighborhood. The clinic, which had seven volunteers and one paid staff member on board around 4 p.m. Monday, can give about 30 shots of the Pfizer vaccine to patients every hour, to as many as 120 patients a day, according to owners Anna and Scott Pace. Appointments were made online, and patients were instructed not to arrive more than five minutes early to avoid crowding.

"This is impressive," the governor said. "They have an organized system that you can get online and put your name in. They will let, on the website, everybody know how much they have for the next week, and so that way there's not long lines of people out there."

Anna Pace said the pharmacy's clinic is on pace to deliver 600 doses of the vaccine this week, adding to the 1,300 doses it has delivered so far.

One of their patients, William L. Mason, departed the clinic after receiving his dose with his wife Monday afternoon. Mason, 78, a physician with the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, said he signed up to receive the vaccine several weeks ago and found the process "efficient and timely."

"We could not be more pleased with the process that is occurring," Mason said. "It's all about logistics, logistics, logistics. I have great hopes that our nation will learn from all of this pandemic."

SUPPLY PROBLEMS

In Jonesboro, pharmacies said they have not received any doses of the coronavirus vaccine this week despite requests for them.

Tyler Soo, owner and pharmacist at Soo's Drug Store in Jonesboro, said the vaccine waiting list at his pharmacy is "over 1,000 people" long and his pharmacy does not have any doses.

"I think it's frustrating for everybody," Soo said. "You know, they understand, but there is nothing we can do about it. But I'm sure there is frustration on both ends as far as us not being able to get what we need, but logistically the demand is much greater than the supply."

Meg Mirivel, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Health, blamed the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday Monday for the lack of vaccines at Jonesboro pharmacies and others across the state. She said pharmacies should expect shipments starting today.

Pharmacists said the new crop of eligible people has created a mass rush to get vaccinated.

At Melvin's Discount Pharmacy in El Dorado, there are about 1,200 people on the waiting list, but the pharmacy has a supply of only 100 doses, according to the pharmacist, Dr. Tami Murphy.

Murphy anticipates it will take three or four weeks to vaccinate everyone on her pharmacy's waiting list, she said.

"I would like to think we could do it in three weeks, but if they would dump 1,500 vaccines on us, we would have clinics, we would work long hours and we would get them processed as quick as we could," Murphy said.

The mass dash to get vaccinated has overwhelmed some pharmacy workers, who, along with their normal duties, are coordinating vaccine shipments and shot appointments for thousands of people in their local communities.

Brittany Johnson, operations manager at Woodsprings Pharmacy in Jonesboro, said because of the low supply of vaccine, people need to keep wearing masks and remain patient, as it may take up to two or three months for some to be inoculated.

"What we say here all the time is that it's a marathon, not a sprint," Johnson said. "And so any person that is over 70 is so excited and so ready to get this shot, like they're quickly discouraged whenever they are still on a wait list and there still isn't one for them."

The new demand has caused some pharmacists to get creative.

For the pharmacies that do have doses, vaccinations are often taking place at the pharmacy or at a clinic nearby. In the case of Doctor's Orders Pharmacy in Pine Bluff, workers have set up a clinic to vaccinate people in a nearby empty store at the strip mall where the pharmacy is located.

Pharmacists in Benton County have organized a text thread with one another to coordinate which pharmacies will vaccinate staff at what school districts and to cover their bases on shots for those still needing them at long-term-care facilities.

"I think the better we can communicate and disseminate information, the clearer the expectations can be on how long this is going to take so that we can all be giving a unified message to the public," said Andrew Mize, owner of Debbie's Family Pharmacy in Rogers.

BY THE NUMBERS

As of Monday, the state received a total of 324,400 doses of vaccine and 140,559 were administered, according to the Health Department.

The bulk of those received, 275,000, went to hospitals, long-term-care facilities and other health providers such as local pharmacies. Doses given totaled 133,962, or 48.7%.

The rest of vaccines received, 49,400, went to CVS and Walgreens as part of a federal program.. Those pharmacies have given 6,597 doses, or 13.4%.

The Health Department reported 1,109 new covid-19 cases on Monday. Sunday's count, 976, is the lowest single-day increase in new cases this year.

Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's state epidemiologist, said the lower numbers are a "hopeful sign," but one that is difficult to interpret because of a lower number of tests taking place over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend.

Covid-19 numbers are generally lower on Mondays due to the limited hours of many testing sites on the weekends.

Dillaha said she believes the state is past the spike in cases brought on by the holidays. But the number of hospitalizations will likely remain high.

"We are likely to still have high hospitalizations for a while even though our case numbers are going down, because there's a lag, so the people that already have covid may still worsen and go to the hospital. It usually takes several days for someone, once they have covid, to progress to the point where they need to be in the hospital," she said.

There were 32 new deaths from the coronavirus reported Monday, bringing the virus' death toll in the state up to 4,343.

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Among the Arkansans who have died from the virus is former Jefferson County Sheriff Edward Lewis "Boe" Fontaine, the sheriff's office announced Sunday.

Fontaine, who was 80, started working at the agency in 1980 and served as sheriff from 1999 to 2006. He was also appointed by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee to serve on the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

Sheriff Lafayette Woods Jr. said Fontaine was a mentor and father figure to him.

"I will continue to be inspired by his commitment to always do the right thing, regardless of the consequences and serve with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and community's interests first without the need for self-recognition," Woods said in a written statement.

There are now 22,794 active cases of covid-19 in Arkansas, which is down by 2,093 from Sunday.

Pulaski County had the most new confirmed and probable cases at 155. Washington County was next with 125, followed by Benton County with 117.

Garland County had 61 new cases, and Jefferson County had 54.

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