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Arkansas virus cases climb by 1,331

Work underway to free up excess doses of vaccine at Walgreens, CVS by Andy Davis, Jeannie Roberts | January 20, 2021 at 7:04 a.m.
Nurses Mandy Stuckey (left) and Tonya Green conduct a coronavirus screening in April at a drive-thru site at New Life Church in North Little Rock. The site, and one at Ouachita Baptist Universityin Arkadelphia, is a partnership between two Arkansas companies. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Tuesday by 1,331 -- an unusually small increase for a Tuesday that may have reflected a slowdown in testing over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday a day earlier.

Meanwhile, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said an "excess number of doses" of vaccine had been allocated to Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate residents and workers at long-term-care facilities in the state under a federal program, and that state officials were working to make those doses available to other Arkansans who are now eligible for shots.

As of Tuesday morning, the national pharmacy chains had been allocated a total of 80,700 doses for Arkansas long-term-care facilities but reported administering just 6,626 of those.

Col. Robert Ator, who is coordinating Arkansas' vaccine effort, said state officials hoped to redirect about 30,000 of the doses to make them available to the broader population now eligible for the vaccine.

Since Monday, that has included people age 70 and older and employees of schools and child care centers. Those groups make up part of Phase 1-B of the state's vaccination plan.

The first people to become eligible, under Phase 1-A, included health care workers, first responders and residents and workers at long-term-care facilities.

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Walgreens and CVS were "allocated those doses based upon what we saw as the census in our long-term-care facilities, but because we've had it decline lately in our long-term-care facilities in terms of the numbers, there's an excess number of doses that really have been allocated," Hutchinson said at his weekly news conference on the coronavirus.

He said state officials are "working with our federal partners to make sure that we get this into our communities."

The increase in cases Tuesday was up from the 1,109 that were added a day earlier but down from the 3,209 that were added the previous Tuesday, Jan. 12.

The average number of cases added to the state's tallies each day over a rolling seven-day period fell Tuesday for the fourth day in a row, to 2,006.

That average daily increase has fallen every day except one since it peaked at 3,086 on Jan. 10.

Hutchinson called the slowdown in new cases "good news," but added, "we've got to be mindful that we've had some dips in the past and it surges up."

In particular, he warned of the potential for gatherings for the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 to lead to infections just as holiday get-togethers have been blamed for previous upticks in cases.

"I encourage everyone to rethink their Super Bowl party atmosphere," Hutchinson said.

"Let's avoid large gatherings. Let's make sure we're careful so we don't see the spike in cases that we've seen previously."

The number of patients hospitalized with the virus rose Tuesday by two, to 1,265.

Those patients included 209 who were on ventilators, down from 216 a day earlier.

The number who were in intensive care units fell by 14, to 396.

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 43, to 4,386.

VACCINE 'WINDFALL'

News of the surplus of vaccine allocated to Walgreens and CVS comes as thousands of names of Arkansans age 70 and older have piled up on waiting lists at other pharmacies across the state.

Ator, director of military affairs for the state Department of Commerce and the retired commander of the Arkansas Air National Guard's 189th Airlift Wing, said the vaccine doses were allocated to the national companies "based off of licensed beds with a straight ratio for the staff to support those beds."

"That occupancy rate was not there, so it was an over-allocation," Ator said.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

He said the two companies have finished administering their first doses at the long-term-care facilities and should be done administering second doses by the end of the month.

He said the state expects to "reclaim" 17,000 of the 30,000 doses this week.

Those doses will become available to Arkansans 70 and older and school and child care center employees at certain Walgreens and CVS locations, he said.

[Interactive Arkansas map not showing up above? Click here to see it: arkansasonline.com/arvirus]

"Walgreens and CVS have a presence in Arkansas," Ator said. "For instance, Walgreens has 79 locations.

"I'm just telling them, 'OK, here's the 1-B populations. Here's where you're at. This is where I want you to go with it,' and they're just going to use it within their networks."

Health Secretary Jose Romero called it "a windfall" for the state.

"The way I look at it is, hell, we just got 17,000 doses that we weren't supposed to get, and now we can use them in our state for this Phase 1-B."

Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said a surplus also exists for long-term-care facilities that chose to get the vaccine from other pharmacies, outside of the federal program.

The state allotted vaccines to all of the facilities based on their licensed beds, then added half that amount at each facility to cover the staff.

"In reality the census and occupancy for long-term care is as low as I've ever seen it in all of my years," she said.

That's partly because of deaths from the virus -- 1,761 at nursing homes and assisted living facilities alone as of Tuesday, according to the Health Department.

Also, fewer people have been getting elective surgical procedures and needing rehabilitation afterward.

Another reason, Bunch said, is that "people are moving into long-term care in different ways or at slower paces right now just because of the pandemic."

She said she's working to identify how many excess doses are available "and get those turned back in to the state so that they can reallocate those to communities that fall within the current categories."

"We're trying to get that figured out quickly," she said.

Outside of the federal long-term-care program, pharmacies and other providers reported having administered a total of 147,609 doses of the vaccine as of Tuesday morning, an increase of 13,647 compared with the total a day earlier.

Those numbers include some second doses that have been administered as part of vaccines' two-dose regimens.

SCHOOL VACCINATIONS

Many school districts around the state are setting up vaccination clinics this week.

On Tuesday, Burrow's Drug Store and Beebe Drug teamed up to vaccinate Beebe School District employees in the cafeteria of the district's early childhood building.

Lana Cates, a bus driver for the Beebe School District, was among those who filed through the different stations that had been set up to give shots.

"I'm kind of worried about it and what could happen," Cates said. "But I figure either covid or the vaccine could kill me, so why not take a chance?"

The vaccines are free, but shot recipients can provide their health insurance cards, which the pharmacists can bill for an administration fee.

"The individual school districts reach out to local pharmacies to set that up," Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said.

Keri Sears, co-owner of Beebe Drug, said the drugstore signed up to help provide the vaccinations for White County.

"It's been going great today," Sears said. "We've had a couple of people with anxiety, but we talked to them and answered their questions. We had some who were afraid of needles."

Sarah Moody, a registered nurse with the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System in Little Rock, volunteered to help Burrow's Drug Store administer the shots at Beebe's vaccination clinic.

Moody lives in Beebe.

"I love helping people. Nurses are givers by nature," Moody said. "It's been wonderful. A lot of people were nervous, but we just talked them through it."

Martha Cathey, a substitute teacher for the junior and senior high schools in the Beebe district, said she had no hesitation about getting the vaccine.

"I talked to a few medical professionals about it, and I trust them," she said.

Cathey had a relative who contracted the virus and died from a heart attack while being treated for covid.

"I've been ready to get it for a while," she said.

Jennifer Hyde, a pharmacist with Beebe Drug, said many of those getting the shots wanted to know what to expect.

"They [the school staff and teachers] take risks every day," Hyde said.

After getting vaccinated, the recipients were sent to a large room adjacent to the cafeteria where about six school nurses monitored them for side effects for about 15 minutes. Tables with snacks and drinks lined the front of the room and dozens of metal chairs were spaced 6-feet apart.

Lindsay Farmer, a registered nurse for Beebe Elementary School, asked a man in one of the chairs how he felt. He replied that his arm was sore.

Farmer moved her right arm in a wide circle.

"Just keep working it out," she said.

Chris Nail, Beebe's superintendent, said he is proud of what was accomplished.

"It was a team effort, and I am very thankful to everyone who had a hand in making it work -- our staff, our local pharmacies, our Board of Education, all of our community partners, and of course our students and parents for their patience as we have navigated this unprecedented year," Nail said. "Most of all, I am proud of our staff for stepping up and doing their part to put covid behind us."

The vaccination clinic was the "first big step toward being done with covid for good," Nail said.

"We look forward to doing this again in 28 days for the second dose to ensure everyone receives the full benefit of the vaccine," he said.

Department of Education spokeswoman Kim Mundell said the department does not track vaccine administration in the state's school districts.

The Health Department does not track the vaccine administration by school district either, McNeill said.

HOMES GET TREATMENT

In addition to vaccines, Bunch said an El Dorado nursing home last week became the first one in the state where residents infected with the virus received a monoclonal antibody treatment as part of a federal program.

"We had some others in other parts to the state follow, trying this out, and we've seen really significant results and major improvement of symptoms within 48 hours of patients who had moderate symptoms," Bunch said.

She said the treatment was provided to Courtyard Healthcare & Rehabilitation by Delta Medical Supply, which has several locations in the state.

Other pharmacies participating in the program include PharMerica in North Little Rock and Red River Pharmacy in Little Rock.

The program, called Special Projects for Equitable and Efficient Distribution, was started last month to provide the treatments in nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities, dialysis centers, federal health centers and prisons.

It's separate from a larger federal initiative that allocates the drug to hospitals, which administer the treatment in outpatient settings.

The treatments are authorized for people with mild to moderate symptoms who are at high risk of developing serious complications.

"I think it's another tool in the tool chest, just like the vaccines and testing and [personal protective equipment] and everything else," Bunch said.

VARIANT EXPECTED

At Hutchinson's news conference, Romero said the state has sent "suspicious" coronavirus specimens to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to see if they were the variant discovered in the United Kingdom that spreads 50%-70% more easily than the more common coronavirus strains, but so far all of the tests have come back negative.

The Health Department is still awaiting results on eight other specimens that it has sent to the CDC, Romero said.

The variant "will eventually get here," Romero said. "It's just a matter of time."

According to the CDC, the variant had been discovered in 20 states as of Monday.

The agency has estimated that it will become the dominant strain of the virus in the United States by March.

"In the future one of our big concerns is that this could lead to another spike in the number of cases because of the transmissability," Romero said.

"It also impacts our vaccine program because in order to really bring the virus under control, we're going to have to have larger numbers of individuals vaccinated."

But he said the spread can be limited by taking precautions such as wearing masks in public and keeping a safe distance from other people, and that more restrictions on restaurants and other businesses shouldn't be necessary.

"If we continue to use the physical means to prevent spread, we should keep it under control," Romero said.

ACTIVE CASES FALL

The cases that were added to the state's tallies Tuesday included 841 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.

The other 490 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.

The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 273,594.

That comprised 220,797 confirmed cases and 52,797 probable ones.

The number of cases that were considered active fell by 1,854, to 20,940, as 3,142 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.

Pulaski County had the largest number of new cases, 268, followed by Benton County with 132, Washington County with 118, Faulkner County with 85 and Sebastian County with 70.

Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department's count of cases rose by one.

Department of Correction spokesman Cindy Murphy said the number of cases rose by two, to 1,537 at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern and by one, to 805, at the Varner Unit in Lincoln County.

The Varner Unit had 27 active cases among inmates as of Tuesday, and the Malvern lockup had three.

The Corrections Department also announced that a prisoner at the Ouachita River Unit had become the state's 52nd prison inmate to die of the virus.

The inmate died Sunday in the prison's Special Needs Unit while being treated for virus-related symptoms, the department said.

He was in his late 60s and serving a life sentence for rape.

Statewide, the death roll from the virus rose by 36, to 3,621, among confirmed cases and by seven, to 765, among probable cases.

The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 95, to 12,851.

The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by 15, to 1,368.

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