SILOAM SPRINGS -- Gov. Asa Hutchinson met resistance when he arrived with his pro-vaccine message Friday for the latest in his series of covid conversations.
The town-hall style event took place as Northwest Arkansas hit an all-time high of of 146 hospitalizations Friday, six more than the record at the height of the pandemic in January, according to Martine Pollard, a spokeswoman for Mercy Hospital who released a joint statement from the region's largest health care providers.
More than 100 people attended the event at the Siloam Springs Community Building, with socially distanced seating in the front and middle of the room, along with a large crowd gathered in the back. Nearly 30 people addressed the governor during the meeting, which lasted more than an hour.
Audience members shouted "liar," jeered and held up signs as Hutchinson and Dr. Jose Romero, state secretary of health, fielded questions on topics such as vaccine safety and effectiveness, long-term side effects, concerns about businesses mandating vaccinations for their employees, government transparency, alternative therapies such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, and masks.
Other audience members encouraged vaccination and told personal stories about how crowded hospitals are endangering their health or family members' health.
The event took place a day after Hutchinson announced that he is reinstating a public health emergency and calling a special session to modify a state law prohibiting mask requirements for public schools. The meeting was the 12th stop in Hutchinson's series of covid-19 conversations encouraging people to get vaccinated. Other meetings this week occurred in Mountain Home, Dumas and Heber Springs.
There has been a 40% increase in vaccinations since Hutchinson started hosting covid conversations, he said. The meetings have helped get people engaged -- doing more research about the vaccines and talking to trusted health advisers like their doctors, he said.
"I think it's the essence of democracy whenever you have the government being asked tough questions and health advisers of the important issues of the day," Hutchinson said. "Whether they are opposed or not they had the opportunity to speak out today."
Arkansas went from 1,600 active cases, 62 new cases a day and 175 hospitalizations on June 7 to 17,029 active cases, 2,843 new cases and 1,055 hospitalizations on Thursday, Hutchinson said.
On Friday, there were 18,541 active cases, 2,544 new cases and 1,087 hospitalizations in the state, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. In Northwest Arkansas, Benton County had 225 new cases, Washington County had 189, Sebastian County had 125 and Crawford County had 24.
Hutchinson cited the delta variant's high transmission rate and the state's low vaccination rate as the reason for the surge.
"I believe there is urgency about this discussion because we have school starting in a couple of weeks," he said.
There is a limit to what the government can tell people to do, Hutchinson said.
"It's about people getting the right information and making the right decision, and it is about communities taking action," he said.
Patsy Bedford of Gravette raised concerns at Friday's forum about hospital staff members being required by their employers to be vaccinated. She asked if employer mandates are a violation of civil rights.
Privately owned businesses can make their own decisions about requiring vaccinations or masks, Hutchinson said.
"They are making decisions for their workforce and their patients and their health," he said.
People have freedom of choice over where they work, but businesses also have the freedom to make decisions to protect their patients' health, Hutchinson said.
Another man asked why so many vaccinated people are getting the virus.
Hutchinson said that if a vaccine has a 90% rate of effectiveness, that means 1 in 10 vaccinated people can still get sick. However, the vaccine prevents 98% of people from hospitalization and serious illness, he said.
Romero said the delta variant, which is currently circulating, can replicate in the vaccinated, but the vaccines protect against the worst of the complications, including hospitalization and death.
"This is a vaccine that is still successful, and that's why we recommend it for everyone that is eligible," Romero said.
Audience member Ashlay McFadin, who is from Siloam Springs but lives in Fayetteville, said her brother almost died Monday because hospitals were diverting patients and no beds were available. McFadin said her brother is still in the hospital fighting for his life, battling a preexisting condition rather than covid.
She appealed to community members to get vaccinated to protect their loved ones.
"This isn't political; this should not be political," she said. "It is life or death."
Sandi Bertaux of Lowell said she has been fighting cancer for four years and may have to delay a surgery to keep her cancer from spreading if hospitals continue to be full because of the low vaccination rate. There are people much sicker than her who need access to hospitals, she said.
"It's scary that I can lose part of my jaw, my face, my shoulder, while I'm waiting for you guys to get vaccines so that I can get rid of my cancer," she said.
Hospital shortages are very real, Hutchinson said, as other members of the crowd shouted, "Lies, we know the truth."
Adam Bracks, CEO of Siloam Springs Regional Hospital and Physicians Speciality Hospital in Fayetteville, which are both part of the Northwest Health system, confirmed to the audience the hospital is at maximum capacity caring for a significant number of covid-19 patients as well as other patients.
Covid-19 is challenging because long hospital stays are necessary, which slows the operation of the hospital, Bracks said.
"We are at the point we struggle to accept new patients ...," he said.
Hutchinson said about 14% of hospitalizations across the state are covid-related, but covid patients are hospitalized for long periods of time while other health needs are postponed.
Covid hospitalizations in Northwest Arkansas increased by 16 patients Friday, up from 130 on Thursday, Pollard said. The youngest covid patient on Thursday was younger than 12, she said.
There were 766 patients in hospitals in Benton and Washington counties on Friday for both covid-19 and other needs, Pollard said. A total of 109 intensive-care beds and 51 ventilators were in use for patients with covid-19 and other health conditions, she said.
Thirty days earlier, the same hospitals reported 99 ICU beds and 33 ventilators in use.
Twenty-four patients were hospitalized with covid-19 at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith on Friday, according to spokeswoman Mardi Taylor -- down seven patients from one week earlier.
Statewide, 398 of the 1,087 hospitalized patients were in ICUs, and 219 patients were on ventilators, according to Danyelle McNeill, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Health. A total of 1,842 hospital beds, 42 ICU beds and 621 ventilators were still available, she said.
The Benton County coroner's office reported four covid-19 related deaths this week for a total 19 in July; the youngest person to die this week was a 24-year-old woman from Bentonville, according to the county website.
Washington County saw 11 covid-19 related deaths this week, bringing its July total to 30, according to Janell Smith, deputy coroner.
Washington Regional announced Friday that it will reopen its drive-thru covid-19 testing clinic at 3318 N. Northhills Blvd. in Fayetteville on Monday. The clinic will serve people with active symptoms or those who have been exposed to someone with the virus. The clinic will be open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week.
CORRECTION: Mercy Hospital of Fort Smith had 24 covid-19 patients on Friday, including nine in the intensive care unit. The information was incorrect in a story in a previous version of this story.