The head of the state's vaccination efforts launched a new strategy to increase the rate of protection against covid-19 as Arkansas' total count of coronavirus cases rose by 700 Thursday, the biggest one-day jump since Feb. 25.
The increase pushed the state above the 350,000 mark for total cases since the first case was identified March 11, 2020.
Active cases rose above 4,000 for the first time since March 6, and hospitalizations from the disease in Arkansas rose by 12 to 337, the highest patient load since early March.
"We've been saying, 'This is serious.' and people are tired. I understand it," retired Arkansas Air National Guard Col. Robert Ator, who is coordinating the state's vaccination efforts, said in an interview Thursday afternoon. "But we're not out of the woods. We're not even close to out of the woods. We've got to find new ways that will resonate with folks."
While the past two days have seen upticks in the number of people getting vaccinated, Arkansas still has the third-lowest vaccination rate in the nation, above only Alabama and Mississippi.
On Thursday, 6,313 doses of vaccine were administered, while Wednesday saw 10,356 people get shots. The number of individuals who received at least one dose of the covid-19 vaccine jumped by 623 to 222,609. Individuals fully immunized increased by 2,969 to 996,440.
Still, only about 34% of the state's about 3 million people have been vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to Arkansas Department of Health data, 9.37% of the state's eligible population, ages 12 and up, have been partially vaccinated while nearly 42% have been fully vaccinated.
"While the past two days have seen some of the highest reports for vaccine distribution in a while, our hospitalizations and new cases continue to rise," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet Thursday. "Delays in getting vaccinated allow the Delta Variant to spread. Let's get the first shot before the weekend of the 4th starts."
Why Arkansans are not getting the covid-19 vaccine is the million-dollar question, Ator said.
"I wish I had a simple answer to sum it all up. The reality is that we have about a thousand different reasons why people are avoiding the vaccine," Ator said. "It varies by county, by municipality, by community, by ZIP code, by ethnic background, by political affiliation. It's all over the map."
The state epidemiologist, Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, agreed.
"The reasons are multifactorial," she said. "Many people don't understand the possible severity of the covid-19 illness and overestimate the side effects of the vaccine."
Dr. Dean Kumpuris, a Little Rock city director and an internal medicine specialist, said the reasons for staying away from the vaccine vary.
"Bad information, fear of what might happen, feeling like their rights are being taken away," Kumpuris said. "What the hospitals and what everybody is trying to do is say, 'Look, this is something for you personally that you need to be involved with because your life is in danger, but you've also got that other 5, 6 or 7 others in the room are also susceptible.'"
The answer, Dillaha said, is to help people build confidence in the vaccines.
And in order to do that, Ator said the message has to be heard from those in the "pathway of trust" to the hesitant individuals.
"What we've been trying to do is what I term 'micro-targeting.' We're down to ZIP code level, and we've overlaid the state with what we call a honeycomb," Ator said. "We're looking at 15-mile radius areas and asking what are the reasons in that community that there is avoidance."
The strategy is shifting the message from "on high" at the state level and empowering local populations to take ownership in getting their people safe and protected, Ator said.
A lot of work is being done now in the different communities and using faith-based organizations and doctors' offices to get the message out, Ator said.
"Instead of it coming from the same talking heads up here in the state -- and because I don't have a face for this -- I'd much rather the local community tell me what they need by way of help to get it done," Ator said.
The strategy isn't new and mimics a lot of what was done in the beginning of the vaccine rollout to encourage different ethnic groups to get the shots, he said.
Ator carved out 15%-20% of the state's pandemic marketing allocation early in the program for these specific efforts. The Black community, for example, was hesitant to trust the vaccine because of the historic Tuskegee experiment.
In that experiment, Blacks were lured to volunteer for syphilis research under the promise of free medical care. About 600 Black men in Alabama were enrolled in the project and were given a placebo instead of penicillin, which became the recommended treatment for syphilis.
Likewise, Hispanic people in the state feared that their immigration status would be questioned if they showed up to get the covid-19 vaccine.
"What we were trying to do was address those concerns early and get some early adoption in those communities. And that worked extremely well," Ator said. "We learned from that and are applying it on a larger scale now."
The state is also making it easier for everyone to get the vaccine.
The large-scale vaccination clinics are a thing of the past, Ator said. The number of vaccination providers in the state has been increased by "700%" to get the vaccine in "every nook and cranny in the state." The state has also invested in storage solutions so that all three vaccine brands are available in all regions of the state.
"In an effort to try to expand access, the attention needs to be on what I term, the 'movable middle.' These aren't the people that are saying 'Absolutely not. Not under any circumstances am I getting the vaccine,' but it's the folks that could be convinced. I want to make sure they have ease of access to that vaccine," Ator said.
Ator is also recruiting help from the state's businesses.
"We're going back to businesses and trying to work with them, saying, 'Hey, we'd like to be able to come out here and do some strike teams or pop-up clinics to get your employees vaccinated,'" he said.
Many employers are already ahead of the game, offering vaccination opportunities and incentives, and putting safety policies in place for employees who choose not to get vaccinated.
Patrick Schueck, chief executive officer of Lexicon Inc. in Little Rock, said all staff members are back on the job now after initially sending the majority of the company's employees home at the beginning of the pandemic.
"We did not require vaccinations for employees to return to work, but we strongly urged it," Schueck said in an email. "We actually had vaccinations administered at our headquarters in Little Rock and a plant site in northeast Arkansas in mid-March. About 65% of our Little Rock office are now vaccinated."
Lexicon employees who aren't vaccinated are required to wear masks, and practice social distancing and other safety measures, he added. Vaccinated employees wear silicone bracelets and hard-hat stickers on job sites that identify them and show that they are allowed to go mask-free.
"Our core corporate values are People, Quality, Innovation and Safety. We have an enviable safety record within our very demanding industry, and the safety issues around covid-19 are every bit as critical as the safety of a rigger 100 [feet] off the ground on a job site," Schueck said. "Safety is ingrained in every employee at every level of the company, so there was no other way for us to look at covid precautions except with passion and urgency."
Laurie David, who co-owns the Faded Rose restaurant in Little Rock with her husband and son, offered each employee $100 once they were fully vaccinated. From there, they held a $1,000 drawing for those who had at least started the vaccination process.
Those employees who choose not to get the shot are required to wear masks until the pandemic is over, David said.
"I know that some of our employees had struggled throughout this because of reduced hours and a couple of closures," she said. "We were hoping this would give them the incentive needed to get vaccinated. We are still offering the $100 and will until we are 100% vaccinated. We are currently at 76%."
MAKING IT PERSONAL
The first priority when the covid-19 vaccine became available in Arkansas was the elderly population, which was at a much higher risk for severe illness and death.
From there, the state expanded from one phase to the next, eventually opening it to all when the supply of the vaccine outpaced the demand.
But now it's the working age population-- people 25-48 -- who are filling hospital beds, Ator said.
"A lot of it has to do with messaging early on," Ator said. "We were saying that the younger generation was not affected like the older generation, and that was true. The body's immune response declines as people age so the most at risk were the elder population."
As of Thursday, Health Department data showed that there were 110,110 cases of covid-19 in Arkansas for those ages 25-44 as compared with 50,801 cases attributed to those 65 and above.
It's the younger age group that has to be persuaded to get the vaccine, Kumpuris said.
"We have a state where, for some reason, there is a group of people who feel like they don't need to be vaccinated, that things are better and they're worried about the vaccine," he said. "In my opinion, what's happening is because of their hesitancy, we're going to be back where you can't go to a restaurant or you've got to wear a mask."
The answer is seeing the younger generation reflected in advertising and promotional campaigns.
"What we're doing is instead of having a big, ugly mug like mine there, we're talking to people that have been affected by covid," Ator said.
The state is in talks with a young Little Rock couple featured on CBS on Thursday morning to appear in public service ads encouraging others to get vaccinated, Ator said.
Ashton Reed, 25, delivered her daughter, Celia Ann Reed, 10 weeks premature on May 27 after Ashton was diagnosed with covid-19. Neither Ashton nor her husband, Charles Reed, were vaccinated.
As the illness progressed and Ashton's oxygen level dropped into the 50% range, doctors had to perform a cesarean to save her and the baby's lives.
Both survived, and the couple are now telling their story to encourage others to get vaccinated.
"We want the voices of people that have been affected by this instead of theoretical discussions from a so-called expert," Ator said.
FOR AND AGAINST
Samantha Johnston, 31, a mother of two from Ozark, said she's not getting the vaccine because she fears her body's reaction to it.
"I have reactions to the flu shot and the shot you get while pregnant for whooping cough and tetanus," Johnston said. "It scares me considering how quickly they pushed it out that I'll end up with a severe reaction."
On the other hand, Katie Lynch, 29, from Charleston didn't hesitate at all to get the vaccine as soon as it was available.
"I trust well-researched science," she said. "I rolled up my sleeve and received mine as soon as I was eligible. It's hard to let the potential vaccine side effects outweigh the impact covid-19 has made in our world."
Charity Keener, 43, of Ola said she is not an anti-vaccination proponent and has even in the past looked down on people who were against vaccines because she felt they were putting others at risk.
But she said neither she nor her mother, Barbara Ritter, are getting the covid-19 vaccine.
"Our decision was not made haphazardly," Keener said. "I am not a candidate for some of the covid vaccines because I have IIH [idiopathic intracranial hypertension] and a brain shunt. Mom was told a couple of months ago by one of her health care providers that it would be a waste for her to get it. After her surviving such a severe case, her antibodies would make the vaccine useless."
Regardless, the fear of the vaccine's side effects is great, Keener said.
"We don't know how long antibodies will last nor how long resistance from the vaccine will last. So many unknowns. It all feels like a shot in the dark," she said. "It may be years before anyone knows who made the best decision. I told one friend that if it feels right to you and gives you peace of mind, get vaccinated. If you feel it's more of a risk to you to be vaccinated, don't."
Amanda Goff, 40, of Benton signed up early in the pandemic for the Moderna vaccine trials.
"I was eager to participate in the trial because I knew the importance of getting a vaccine to the masses to reduce the number of sick and dead people," Goff said. "Specifically I wanted my vaccine quickly to reduce the risk to myself and the hundreds of teenagers I teach daily. The thought of getting covid and passing it to my students was terrifying."
BY THE NUMBERS
No new deaths from the virus were reported Thursday, leaving the state's comprehensive tally of deaths since the pandemic reached Arkansas in March 2020 at 5,909.
The number of covid patients in the state's intensive care units remained at 150. The number of patients on ventilators was also unchanged from the day before at 75.
The cases that were added to Arkansas' numbers included 456 confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests. The other 244 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through the less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 350,085, which consisted of 272,207 confirmed cases and 77,878 probable ones.
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 120, followed by Lonoke County with 55 and Saline County with 46.