CABOT -- A standing-room only crowd, with dozens lined up against a back wall, turned out Thursday evening to hear Gov. Asa Hutchinson answer questions during the first stop on his recently announced Covid Community Conversation tour.
At least one person was vaccinated against coronavirus before the evening was over.
"We can't address covid, at this point, from the top down," Hutchinson said to the gathering at the Veterans Park Community Center in Cabot. "We've got to really engage and listen to our communities and build confidence and acceptance in what we're trying to do and what we need to do as a community. So I hope we can have honest conversations."
In the face of a resurgence of cases, Hutchinson announced the initiative on Tuesday, saying that he would travel to numerous communities around the state to listen to constituents' concerns about the covid-19 vaccine and answer questions in hopes of persuading people to get the shot. Less than 35% of the state's population is vaccinated.
After a short introduction Thursday evening, Hutchinson quickly yielded to the audience, an aide passing the microphone from person to person for a full hour. Few in the audience had masks.
On hand as well and answering questions were Health Secretary Jose Romero; Dr. Sam Greenfield, an obstetrics and gynecology professor at UAMS; and retired Arkansas Air National Guard Col. Robert Ator, who is coordinating the state's vaccination efforts.
The audience queries ranged from the vaccine's effectiveness against the virulent delta virus to requests -- from nurse practitioners, doctors and a domestic-violence advocate -- for printed copies of vaccine education material.
The vast majority of the information is available only online, which the audience members said made it difficult to provide to people who lack electronic access.
Both Hutchinson and Romero vowed to make printed material available for health care providers and others who need it.
About 10 minutes before the event started, friends Honey Sue Cashion of Cabot and Tammy Kreimeyer of El Paso said they were there to get answers to a list of typed questions Kreimeyer held in her hand.
"A lot of people don't want it," Cashion said.
Kreimeyer wanted to know if businesses could deny services if someone was not vaccinated.
Both women declined to say whether they were vaccinated.
"I don't want to influence anyone one way or another," Kreimeyer said, saying it is an individual choice.
Beverley Haines of Cabot, a chemistry professor at Arkansas State University in Beebe, said she was there to hear if there would be any discussion about school and colleges in light of the rising cases.
"I'm anxious for the fall," she said, adding that she is fully vaccinated. "I've done everything I can do personally. What is the future of education?"
At the beginning of the question-and-answer session, Cabot High School Principal Henry Hawkins thanked Hutchinson for his leadership during the pandemic then made a plea for the school's patrons to "get out there and get it done" so that school can return to normal.
Jayson Crumpler, a Hendrix College student and a 2020 graduate of Cabot High School, told the governor about dozens of underage friends who have educated themselves and want to get the vaccine, but their parents are not allowing it.
"I could name 20 kids right now who want the shot, but aren't allowed to get it," Crumpler said after the meeting.
Romero said the only option is to "continue to try to educate your parents."
Kim Griffin, a Cabot nurse practitioner, said she is seeing a lot more patients with anxiety and depression since the pandemic hit and she is spending a lot of extra time during patient visits to dispel myths about the vaccine.
Hutchinson told the audience to go to their trusted sources, like Griffin, to get questions answered.
"Nurse practitioners, medical professionals, doctors and clinics. That's where people go to when they're sick because you trust them," Hutchinson said. "You know they have information that is helpful and that they're trained. That's where I would like people who have questions to go. Go to your medical professional, who you trust, and ask all those questions that you might see on the internet. Don't just simply accept it."
One woman, who declined to give her name, asked Romero for the percentage of those hospitalized with covid who are fully vaccinated.
Governor in Cabot
Romero said that 90% of those hospitalized are not vaccinated and 95% of those who die of the disease were not vaccinated.
Another asked for the breakout by age.
"It is the young and healthy individual who is winding up in the hospital and dying from this disease," Romero said.
One person asked about the duration of immunity given to people who have had covid-19 in the past.
Hutchinson said even those with antibodies from the disease need to get vaccinated.
Romero said the antibodies from an infection last about six months after onset.
There are not sufficient antibodies from a case of covid-19 to keep the delta variant out, he added.
Hutchinson announced at the end of the session that the Lonoke County Health Unit was stationed in the lobby to administer the vaccine.
Bobbi Kirtley, a registered nurse with the Health Department in Cabot, said she had given only one shot, but was not closing up shop until everyone had left the building.