The number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas jumped Tuesday by 55, to 416, the largest one-day increase since January.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson attributed the uptick to the state's low vaccination rates.
Fifteen more covid-19 patients were admitted into intensive care units, raising the total to 176, a week-to-week increase of 34 from the 142 reported the previous Tuesday.
Those patients requiring ventilators to breathe increased by 10, to 76 -- up seven from 69 a week ago.
The increases came the same day Hutchinson announced a statewide tour to talk directly with residents and address vaccine hesitancy.
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They also came as public health experts have been warning of a new mutation of the virus that is shown to be more contagious and cause more severe illness.
"If you look at the hospital data, and of course, that tells us the largest story -- that we had a 55 increase in hospitalizations. Fifty-five," Hutchinson said during his weekly news conference Tuesday afternoon. "This is the largest increase in hospitalizations since January. It is the largest increase in hospitalizations since we've had the vaccination available to prevent hospitalizations."
Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero warned that it could be much worse.
"This is the most significant increase we've had really when we look at the fact that now we have vaccines to prevent this," Romero said.
Arkansas reported 270 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, higher than the previous two days but significantly lower than the 764 new cases added Saturday.
Hutchinson pointed out that the lower case numbers are likely due to the Fourth of July holiday weekend, which meant less testing and reporting.Gallery: Governor Press Conference
"We'll stay tuned for the rest of the week, but the hospitalizations obviously tell the story for today," Hutchinson said.
The number of Arkansans 12 years old and up who received at least one dose of the covid-19 vaccine rose by 228, to 225,525, or 9.5% of the approximately 2.5 million Arkansans 12 and older. The number of people fully immunized increased by 901, to 1,003,703, or 42.27% of the eligible population.
Of the 2,724,040 vaccine doses received in the state, 2,156,928, or 79.2%, have been administered.
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"While we have 1 million fully vaccinated in Arkansas, that is not high enough to prevent more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths," Hutchinson said. "While we were winning this battle in April -- while we were down at a very low level -- in those category of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, we are losing ground in July. Why is that the case?"
The average age of those hospitalized with covid-19 in November was 63 to 64, but now the average age is 54, Hutchinson said.
The same pattern is repeated for covid-19 deaths, with the average age for covid deaths going from 78 to 66.
"Hospitalizations and deaths are getting to a lower age because the higher age groups are getting vaccinated, and they're protected," Hutchinson said. "We've got a gap there that we need to work through."
Going straight to communities and enlisting the help of the state's employers is the latest strategy in the mission to increase vaccinations in the state, Hutchinson announced Tuesday.
The first phase of the two-part strategy will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Veterans Park Event Center in Cabot, where Hutchinson's new "Community Covid Conversations" tour will kick off.
"It's a series of statewide community discussions surrounding covid-19 vaccine. It is to provide opportunities to Arkansans to ask questions, to get answers and simply to express concerns," Hutchinson said. "We want to hear from Arkansans as to what's happening in your community."
The goal is to engage communities at the local level and ask what more can be done to overcome vaccine hesitancy and to satisfy questions, Hutchinson said.
"The last thing that they need to have is the governor coming in and lecturing them, or even Dr. Romero," he said. "So the intent is to have a conversation where they can talk to us. We expect to have community leaders there. We want to listen."
The aim is to go out from the population centers into some of the rural areas as well as some of the areas that have low vaccination rates, Hutchinson said.
"It does come down to individual responsibility. That's the message. I'm the leader of this state, and I want to do all that I can," the governor said. "It would be easier for me to sit back and say, 'I'm weary of this covid conversation.' I'm sure everyone in this room is, but that's not leadership. It's saying: 'Let's plow on. Let's get through this. Let's see if we can do a little bit better.' We talk about individual responsibility, and we try to encourage that and individual decision-making."
The second step of the two-part strategy is enlisting employers in the state to encourage vaccinations in the workplace.
While employers were the first ones to push to get the vaccines, Hutchinson said he wants business leaders to "come back and reemphasize the need for vaccines in the workplace."
"First, I'm asking employers in Arkansas to give paid time off for workers to get vaccinated," Hutchinson said. "Secondly, to increase access to vaccines in the work place. If we need a clinic there, we'll make that available. If you need greater access and you want to have something at the workplace, we'll work with you to do that."
Next is asking employers to actively participate in engaging, informing and educating their employees on the benefits of the vaccines.
"We're not mandating anything," Hutchinson said. "We're asking for partners and help through the employer community."
Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said during Tuesday's news conference that the top reason employees give for not getting vaccinated is concern about the loss of income if they have a reaction to the shots and have to miss work.
"So many of our employers, especially our largest ones around the state, have taken steps to provide bonuses to employees for getting the shots as well as ensuring them that they'll get full pay for time off that results from taking the shots," Zook said. "We're encouraging all employers, not just the largest ones, all employers, to step back and put some extra effort into this push to get more and more employees vaccinated."
Zook also encouraged employers to take advantage of a provision in a federal relief law that allows a 100% tax credit for the cost of paid time off for a business with fewer than 500 employees.
"This is a new deal," he said. "It's very simple to do."
The increase in case numbers and hospitalizations can, in part, be attributed to the rise of the delta variant in the state.
According to a weekly Health Department report, there are nine variants of the virus in the state, with the delta variant being the third-most-prevalent of the specimens sequenced.
About 7.2% of the Arkansas covid-19 specimens tested show the delta variant, compared with 2% nationwide.
"The delta variant itself is extremely transmissible. It is, on average, it is 30 to 50 times more transmissible than the alpha variant, which is the variant that came after the original strain," Romero said at the news conference. "It is very, very transmissible, and that's what makes it spread so quickly among the population."
Perhaps one of the most concerning aspects of the delta variant is that it is penetrating into the state's childhood population, Romero said.
"We cannot vaccinate our children at this point. We do not have a vaccine for them," Romero said. "The only way to protect them is to protect them by immunizing yourself and having a cocoon around them that doesn't allow the virus to reach them. Again, it's yet another reason for which to accept this vaccine and take them."
The good news, Hutchinson said, is that vaccination is effective against all the variants in the state, including the delta variant.
"It has a high level of effectiveness to prevent the actions of the delta variant even though it's more transmissible and more risky in terms of health outcomes," Hutchinson said.
Romero said it's important for people to know that those who have only received the first of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine protocol are only 30% protected from the virus.
"All of the vaccines today have been shown to be protective against severe disease; that's disease that causes deaths and the majority of hospitalizations," Romero said.
Hutchinson said he's concerned about the virus's growth over the next two weeks after the Fourth of July holiday.
"I'm hopeful that they've been responsible over the holiday and that they'll continue to be responsible in getting the vaccine," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said on a nationally televised CNN interview Sunday that he was concerned about the state's future with the more powerful delta strain if the vaccination rate didn't improve, but he said that he didn't foresee a third surge on the horizon.
When asked Tuesday, Hutchinson said he would yield to the experts who have predicted another covid-19 surge.
"When I said I didn't think we'd have a third wave, I don't think we'll see what we saw and the extent of it last year because we do have close to 50% of our adult population vaccinated," Hutchinson said. "So you're not going to see the deaths as you've seen by the graph. You're not going to see the level of hospitalizations."
BY THE NUMBERS
Hutchinson congratulated Bradley County for being the first in the state to vaccinate more than 50% of its residents.
"We are having a number of other counties that are close to that," he said, adding that the state is "still a ways, again, from our goal" of vaccinating 50% of the state's population by July 30.
Arkansas' cumulative count of cases rose Tuesday to 352,095.
The total number of active cases fell by 107, to 4,645.
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 57, followed by Garland County with 28 and Craighead and Washington counties with 16 each.
The state's comprehensive tally of deaths since the pandemic reached Arkansas rose by six, to 5,926, on Tuesday.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew to 17,090.
The number of virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose to 1,735.