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Arkansas' virus-case increases start back down

Hospitalizations also fall; state clarifies vaccine eligibility by Andy Davis | March 10, 2021 at 7:10 a.m.
This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19. - Photo by NIAID-RML via AP

After an uptick a day earlier, the downward trend in Arkansas' daily coronavirus case increases resumed Tuesday as the count rose by 432.

The number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 fell by 21, to 317, its lowest level since July 4.

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Arkansas Department of Health, rose by 14, to 5,357.

"We continue to see a decrease in active cases and hospitalizations compared to last week," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement.

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

"Also, an additional 104,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered since last Tuesday. Our continued mitigation efforts, including vaccination, masking, and social distancing, will get us closer to the end of this pandemic."

Meanwhile, state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said the Health Department was working on providing more details on the types of workers who can now get the shots after Hutchinson on Monday extended eligibility to all groups covered under Phase 1-B of the state's vaccination plan.

For instance, although the phase includes "public-facing" transit workers, she said truckers fall under the transportation and logistics category listed in the plan's Phase 1-C, which hasn't yet started.

Also, Phase 1-B includes some attorneys, such as prosecutors and public defenders, but not others, such as private attorneys who don't go into courtrooms, Dillaha said.

"We put kind of a list of who's eligible in 1-B on the website yesterday and tried to put some definitions so people would have more clarity on just who is in each group, but based on the questions that we received today, we're going to need to further clarify it," Dillaha said.

The number of cases added to the state's tallies was eight fewer than the number added the previous Tuesday, March 2.

As a result, the average number of cases added each day over a rolling seven-day period fell by one, to 348.

The number of virus patients who were on ventilators fell by three, to 71.

The number who were in intensive care units as of 2 p.m. fell by five, to 136.

REFINING DEFINITIONS

The expansion of Arkansas' vaccine eligibility groups on Monday made the shots available to "essential priority workers," including workers in grocery stores, agriculture, prisons, houses of worship, manufacturing and mail, package and food delivery.

"Essential government workers," such as judges, librarians and state legislators are also eligible.

[Interactive Arkansas map not showing up above? Click here to see it: arkansasonline.com/arvirus]

Adding to confusion about who is now able to get the shots, the expansion came four days after the state Supreme Court issued an opinion declaring that it had made people in certain jobs associated with the legal system eligible for the vaccine.

Hutchinson has indicated that the opinion had no practical effect, since the court doesn't control the state's vaccine supply.

The expansion on Monday appeared to extend eligibility to most, if not all, the types of workers listed in the Supreme Court order.

One group not mentioned in a list of Phase 1-B members on the Health Department's website is jury panel members scheduled to begin serving after the Supreme Court's suspension of jury trials expires in May.

Dillaha said the Health Department is still working on how to extend eligibility to that group.

"We don't want potential jurors to not be willing to serve because they can't get vaccinated, but the key will be, they would have to be vaccinated far enough in advance to be protected by the vaccine, so we're working on how to define that or word it in a way that would actually protect them," she said.

While prosecutors and defense attorneys are now eligible, the department was also working on language to clarify which other types of attorneys fall under Phase 1-B.

"The idea is those things that have to take place in court and those people who need to go to a jail or corrections facility to meet with a client, those people need to be protected, but those things that can be done remotely, they will continue to do those remotely," Dillaha said.

She said officials are hoping most vaccinations of essential workers will take place at work sites. Workers who go to a pharmacy or other provider for their shots can bring work badges or letters from their employers as proof of employment.

An employer could also supply a pharmacy with a list of eligible workers, she said.

At Cornerstone Pharmacy on Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock, pharmacist Kyleigh Stout said she's seen an increase in sign-ups for the shots since the announcement on Monday, but one that only slightly extended the amount of time it might take for someone signing up on the store's website to be able to get the first dose.

"With more people being eligible, it might be up to two weeks, but I would say that would be a pretty long wait time at our pharmacy," Stout, who said the store gives initial doses to 600 to 1,000 people a week, said. "If you're available we can usually get you in within a week, week and a half."

The Health Department is "looking at potentially holding a vaccine clinic at the Capitol" for state lawmakers, "but those plans have not been finalized yet," department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said in an email.

The Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare system, which is following a separate vaccine plan, announced Tuesday it had expanded eligibility for the shots to enrolled veterans of all ages.

Previously, they had been available to veterans age 50 and older as well as members of certain priority groups, such as those who live in congregate settings or employed as "essential front-line workers."

GROCERY WORKERS

Steve Goode, president of the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association, said his group has been working to connect grocery stores that do not have in-house pharmacies with the nearest drug store where the shots are available.

"We encouraged them to get communication lines open so when the day came, we were able to get them in there," Goode said.

Pharmacy employees at some Edward's Cash Saver stores, including the one on Main Street in Little Rock, will administer vaccines to employees at the company's stores, such as the one on Camp Robinson Road in North Little Rock, that do not have pharmacies, David Bowlan, the manager of the North Little Rock location, said.

Sally Jones, assistant manager at the Main Street location, said the store received a shipment of vaccines Tuesday and will start distributing them later this week.

Employees at the Kroger on Roosevelt Road in Little Rock have been encouraged to go to Kroger stores, such as the ones on Cantrell Road in Little Rock and McCain Boulevard in North Little Rock, that have received vaccines while their stores await shipment of vaccines, manager Joseph Mayo said.

Meanwhile, employees at the Harps grocery store in Benton are waiting for instructions on where and when to receive vaccines since the store does not have a pharmacy, closing manager Calum Young said Tuesday.

"We had to fill out an assignment sheet about a month ago for covid shots, and we haven't received an update on when it will be," he said.

David Edgan, the closing manager at Harps in Cabot, said the store does have a pharmacy and had not received vaccines as of Tuesday.

Some employees have received vaccines already so that a shot would not go to waste when someone missed an appointment, he said.

A Walmart spokeswoman said the company will provide resources to help employees find locations to get the shots, "including pharmacies at Walmart stores and Sam's Clubs if we receive an allotment of the vaccine."

"We will allow access to the vaccine by our associates equally once they are eligible," the spokeswoman said. But as with other vaccines Walmart offers, she said, employees should plan to get the inoculations during their time off work.

The Bentonville-based retailer says it "strongly encourages" all its workers to get the shots.

While it is not offering workers any incentives to get vaccinated, as many other retailers do, Walmart employees who have flu-like symptoms after a covid-19 vaccination are eligible for up to three days of paid leave.

Walmart and Sam's Club pharmacies that are currently giving vaccinations will occasionally offer customers and employees any doses left over at the end of the day.

Each vial of the vaccine contains multiple doses, and the spokeswoman said eligibility and waste avoidance protocols developed in collaboration with state health departments help ensure no doses go to waste.

"In the event additional doses from an opened vial are available, and there are no scheduled appointments, we turn to individuals, including our associates, who fall within that priority to administer the remaining doses," she said. "If no one is available in that priority, where states allow, we move to the next priority."

VACCINATION DEMOGRAPHICS

Information added to the Health Department's online dashboard for the coronavirus on Saturday provides the first statewide look at vaccination rates among whites and minority groups.

According to the dashboard, at least 76% of the first doses of vaccine that have been administered so far have gone to white people, who according to a 2019 Census Bureau estimate, make up 79% of the state's population.

Black people, who make up 15.7% of the state's population, have received at least 9.4% of the doses, according to the dashboard.

Hispanics, who make up 7.8% of the state's population and can be of any race, received at least 2.2% of the doses.

Information wasn't available on the race of the recipient for 11% of the doses and on the Hispanic status for 18% of the doses.

The percentage of doses that have been administered was at least 0.9% for Asians, who make up 1.7% of the state's population; 0.2% for American Indians, who make up 1% of the population; and 0.1% for native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who make up 0.4% of the population.

Of the doses for which the race or ethnicity of the recipient was known, 85% went to whites, 11% went to Blacks, 2.7% went to Hispanics, 1% went to Asians, 0.2% went to American Indians and 0.1% went to native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Dillaha said some of the percentages are misleading. For instance, she said, a larger proportion of white people than of Black people are age 65 and older.

Arkansas age 65-69 have been eligible for the vaccine since Feb. 23, while those 70 and older have been able to get the shots since Jan. 18.

"I think we are behind, but we're not severely behind" on vaccinating minority groups, Dillaha said.

She said the department's health equity office has been helping to arrange events where people can get shots in areas with low vaccination rates.

A department hotline people can call for help making an appointment should also help get the shots to minorities who lack computers or access to the internet, she said.

Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said the call center, which can be reached at (800) 985-6030 and offers translation services, received 1,332 calls on Monday after it went live at 8 a.m. and 1,153 on Tuesday as of about 3:45 p.m.

DOSES REPORTED

According to the Health Department, providers participating in the vaccination effort coordinated by the state had received 1,158,630 doses as of Tuesday morning, up by 70,480 from the total a day earlier.

The doses the providers reported having administered, including booster shots, rose by 13,172, to 697,452.

In addition, Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network pharmacies had been allotted 135,550 doses through federal programs, a number that hadn't changed since Friday.

The doses those providers reported having administered rose by 1,675, to 59,599.

The actual number of shots given is higher than the Health Department's figures because providers have three days to report inoculations.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 501,653 Arkansans, representing 16.6% of the state's population, had received at least one vaccine dose as of Tuesday.

That included 279,815 people, or 9.3% of the population, who had been fully vaccinated, meaning they had received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Nationally, 18.4% of people had received at least one vaccine dose, and 9.7% were fully vaccinated.

TESTING DOWN

In their latest forecast report, released Tuesday, researchers with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health noted that the number of tests reported each day has declined along with the number of new cases, which they said "suggests we may be missing a number of asymptomatic infections."

The report, dated Friday, predicted that, from Feb. 28 to April 30, the number of people who have been hospitalized with the virus will increase by 1,307, while the number deaths will increase by 475, to 5,718.

Dillaha said only four of the deaths reported Tuesday happened with in the past month. Of the others, six happened in January and four were in early February.

The cases added to the state's tallies on Tuesday included 241 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.

The other 191 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through antigen tests.

The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 325,383.

That comprised 256,077 confirmed cases and 69,306 probable ones.

The number of cases that were considered active fell by 132, to 3,461, as recoveries outpaced new cases.

Washington County had the largest number of new cases, 62; followed by Benton County, which had 47; Garland County, which had 42; Faulkner County, which had 28; and Pulaski County, which had 26.

The Health Department didn't report any increase in its count of new cases among prison and jail inmates.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Cindy Murphy, however, said the number of cases at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern rose by four, to 1,619.

Forty cases at the prison were active as of Tuesday. (Due to reporting and data entry lags, the Corrections Department's numbers often differ from the Health Department's.)

The state's death toll rose by six, to 4,321, among confirmed cases and by eight, to 1,036, among probable cases.

Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths rose by three, to 2,005.

The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with the virus grew by 27, to 14,968.

The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by three, to 1,536.

Information for this article was contributed by Serenah McKay and Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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