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Vaccinations on pace to fall short of state's target

Governor aims to see 50% of Arkansas get at least one dose by Andy Davis | June 8, 2021 at 7:28 a.m.
University of Arkansas at Little Rock senior Rebecca Farhat of Fort Smith gets her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine from Simone Kennedy, a junior nursing student at UALR, during UALR's vaccine clinic put on by Don's Pharmacy on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

When Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced a goal last month of raising the proportion of Arkansans who have at least one coronavirus vaccine dose to at least 50% within 90 days, he acknowledged that meeting the target would require the pace of vaccinations to increase.

For the most part, that hasn't happened.

At the time Hutchinson set the goal, on May 4, 36% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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

As of Monday, the percentage had risen to 40.1%.

If vaccinations continued at their pace since Hutchinson's announcement, then the state would hit the 50% mark toward the end of August, rather than at the early Aug. 2 goal set by the governor, CDC data indicates. But the pace has slowed recently.

"At the current rate, we need to pick up the pace to meet the goal of 50% of all Arkansans vaccinated with at least one dose by the first of August," Hutchinson said in a statement Monday.

"We have 2 months left to make up the ground. I understand that there continues to be resistance and postponement to get the shot. This is not any different than the experience in other states."

He noted that the state has offered incentives, such as scratch-off lottery tickets, to people who get vaccinated, and it increased its public education campaign.

"It is simply up to each person to make the right decision for their own health and the well-being of the community," Hutchinson said. "We will continue to study best practices to enhance the vaccine administration."

"The important point to consider is not whether we reach 50 percent by August 2 or September 2 but that we reach it soon," the Republican governor added.

"Now that youth 12 years old to 15 years can take the vaccination, we can accelerate our progress, which will be especially important as we prepare for the 2021-2022 school year."

The country as a whole passed the 50% mark on May 28, with the percentage rising as of Monday to 51.6%, according to the CDC.

Arkansas Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said Monday that it's possible that Hutchinson's goal will be met, but she's "very concerned" that it won't be.

"Summertime is a time when there's a lot of activity related to sports that kids participate in, and there's usually some travel related with them around the state or maybe out of state, so that is a vehicle for spread of covid-19 if wearing masks and social distancing are not practiced," Dillaha said.

"Of course kids 12 and older could be vaccinated to help protect them and decrease the spread, but the younger kids would not be able to" because none of the vaccines have been authorized at this point for children younger than 12.

That concern is exacerbated by the growing number of cases in the state known to have been caused by faster-spreading coronavirus variants.

The variant first identified in the United Kingdom is of particular concern, she said, since it appears to cause hospitalizations and deaths more often than the original coronavirus strain.

"I think we would see outbreaks in social groups that have low vaccination rates, and if it happens to be that one of those variants is involved, then a greater proportion of the exposed people are likely to get sick," she said.

Dillaha said she also worried about the virus spreading this winter at the same time as the flu and other respiratory illnesses that were kept in check this past winter by mask wearing and social distancing.

On Monday, the number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus in Arkansas fell to its lowest level in more than three weeks, while the state's count of cases rose by 62.

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by three, to 5,849.

VACCINATIONS SLOW

According to data from the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose in May by 122,471, or by an average of fewer than 4,000 people per day.

That was less than half the increase in April.

That month, the number rose by 283,496, or about 9,450 per day.

With vaccinations slowing around Memorial Day weekend, the pace has fallen even more.

During the week ending Monday, the CDC's count of the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose increased by an average of just 2,260 per day.

At that pace, the percentage of Arkansans with at least one vaccine dose wouldn't reach 50% until mid-October.

A report in The New York Times last week found that Arkansas, along with about 30 other states, is unlikely to meet President Joe Biden's goal of having 70% of adults with at least one vaccine dose by July 4.

Arkansas was on track to reach the benchmark in about five months.

According to the CDC, 50.7% of Arkansas adults had at least one vaccine dose as of Monday.

DISPELLING MYTHS

Dillaha said she hopes the pace of vaccinations in Arkansas will increase as people get more information.

For instance, she said, she still hears of people not wanting to be vaccinated because of a mistaken belief that the vaccines can give them covid-19.

"I heard a story recently of someone choosing not to get vaccinated because their mother was very ill, and they wanted to be able to see their mother," Dillaha said.

"They thought that if they got vaccinated, they might give covid-19 to their mother, when actually the opposite was true."

She said some people also think getting the virus provides more immunity than the vaccines. That also isn't true, she said.

"We know from studies that people develop a more robust immune response to the vaccine than they do to the disease itself," Dillaha said.

Hutchinson announced late last month that Arkansans receiving vaccinations May 26 or later would be eligible for their choice of a $20 scratch-off lottery ticket or two gift certificates for hunting and fishing licenses worth a total of $21.

People have been able to use their vaccination cards to claim one of the rewards at health units since June 1.

On Friday, the number of people claiming the rewards at the units rose to a new single-day high of 236.

That comprised 166 people who chose the lottery tickets and 70 who received gift certificates.

Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said Monday that the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care has also been distributing lottery tickets at its vaccine clinics around the state.

The organization gave out 19 tickets at its clinics over the weekend, she said.

According to the Health Department, the number of vaccine doses that had been administered in the state, included second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, rose Monday by 2,484.

That was the second daily increase that was larger than the one a week earlier, during the holiday weekend.

The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose by almost 140, to 4,911.

According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Monday by 129, to 1,210,066.

The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 157, to 958,477, or about 31.8% of the population.

Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas ranked 45th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose and 49th, ahead of only Alabama and Mississippi, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.

Nationally, 42.1% of people were fully vaccinated as of Monday.

SCHOOL CLINICS

The Little Rock School District is hosting covid-19 vaccination clinics at its middle schools Wednesday for students ages 12 and up.

The clinics will be held from 2-4 p.m. Parents are asked to make online appointments using the link below that corresponds with their child's school.

Cloverdale Middle -- https://ExpressRxVaccinationAppointments.as.me/LRSDcloverdale

Dunbar Middle -- https://ExpressRxVaccinationAppointments.as.me/LRSDDunbar

Horace Mann Middle -- https://ExpressRxVaccinationAppointments.as.me/LRSDMann

Mabelvale Middle -- https://ExpressRxVaccinationAppointments.as.me/LRSDMabelvale

Pulaski Heights Middle -- https://ExpressRxVaccinationAppointments.as.me/LRSDPulaski

Pinnacle View Middle -- https://ExpressRxVaccinationAppointments.as.me/LRSDPinnacle

Forest Heights STEM Academy -- https://ExpressRxVaccinationAppointments.as.me/LRSDFH

Only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for people under age 18.

VARIANTS IDENTIFIED

Meanwhile, the Health Department reported Monday that the number of cases in the state identified as having been caused by coronavirus variants of interest or concern rose last week by 49, to 271.

That included an increase of 42 cases that were found to have been caused by the variant from the United Kingdom, bringing the total number of such cases to 207.

The number of cases known to have been caused by variants from India rose by six, to nine, while the found to have been caused by the Brazil variant rose by one, to 17.

Pulaski and Hot Spring counties each have had 21 to 50 cases that had been found to have been caused by variants of concern or interest.

Fifteen other counties have had five to 20 such cases, and 29 have had between one and four.

Such cases have been identified as being responsible for 17 hospitalizations, including 12 that were caused by the United Kingdom variant, according to the report.

That variant was also linked to three of the state's covid-19 deaths. One of the variants from India was found to have caused another of the state's deaths.

The total number of cases in the state that are caused by variants is unknown because only a small percentage are tested to determine that.

ACTIVE CASES FALL

Although smaller than the one Sunday, the increase in cases was the fourth in a row that was larger than the one a week earlier.

After falling by seven on Sunday, however, the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas fell by 12 more on Monday, to 175, its lowest level since May 16.

With recoveries outpacing new cases, the number of cases in the state that were considered active fell by 113, to 1,594, setting a new low for the year.

The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators remained at 33.

After a slowdown in testing over Memorial Day weekend, the state's daily case increases have generally rebounded.

After reaching a low for the year of 134 on June 1, the average number of cases added to the state's tallies each day over a rolling seven-day period has mostly been going up, rising to 159 as of Monday.

Any uptick in cases associated with gatherings over Memorial Day weekend could show up in the state's numbers this week, as test results come in from people who were infected.

Such an increase didn't appear to have materialized as of Monday, however, Dillaha said.

"I was rather happy with the numbers in the sense that we saw a decrease in the total active cases, a decrease in hospitalizations and very few deaths," Dillaha said.

The cases that were added to the state's tallies Monday included 37 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.

The other 25 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.

The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 342,495.

That comprised 267,411 confirmed cases and 75,084 probable ones.

Jefferson County had the most new cases, 11, followed by Pulaski County, which had nine.

Benton, Grant, Saline, Sebastian and Washington counties all tied for having the next-highest number, with three new cases each.

The Health Department didn't report any new cases among prison and jail inmates.

The state's death toll rose by three, to 4,642, among confirmed cases and remained at 1,207 among probable cases.

Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths remained at 2,092.

The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 28, to 16,453.

The number of state virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by one, to 1,676.

Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

CORRECTION: Arkansas ranked 45th among the states and District of Columbia as of Monday in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect ranking for Arkansas on the measure.

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