Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday set a goal of increasing the proportion of Arkansans who have had at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine to at least 50% within the next 90 days -- a target that he said would require the pace of vaccinations to increase.
"The big thing is that our decline needs to stop," Hutchinson said.
The Republican governor also said he wasn't concerned about a White House policy announced Tuesday that will make states' unordered vaccine allocations available to other states.
The change has implications for Arkansas because it didn't order any new vaccine doses for this week and ordered only part of what it was allocated to receive last week.
"Quite frankly it makes sense," Hutchinson said of the new policy.
"It just simply means that if we're not utilizing all of our allocation in Arkansas and don't order it, then it can be used for the urgent needs across the country and where there's a higher acceptance rate, where there's a higher demand."
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He said the policy could be a "motivator."
"If we don't utilize the vaccines that are available to us here in Arkansas, then those vaccines might go to Massachusetts because there's a higher acceptance rate there," Hutchinson said.
"I want those vaccines to go in Arkansas, and so let's don't lose that ability. We have to increase our demand for it."
Hutchinson made the comments as the state's count of virus cases rose Tuesday by 296 -- the largest increase in almost two weeks.
The number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by 20, to 192, its highest level since March 21.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by five, to 5,752.
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At Hutchinson's weekly news conference on the pandemic, Renee Mallory, the Health Department's deputy director of public health programs, said the department plans to make vaccinations available at hundreds of community events, such as festivals, farmers markets and rodeos, across the state over the next several months.
"I'm terming that the Girl Scout cookie theory," said Col. Robert Ator, who is coordinating the state's vaccination effort.
"They've figured out where all the people hang out, so we're going to try to be there as well."
Hutchinson also said the state is recommending that travelers from India, which is experiencing a surge of coronavirus cases, quarantine for 14 days after arriving in Arkansas.
President Joe Biden last week issued a proclamation that took effect Tuesday barring most travel to the United States by foreigners who were in India in the past 14 days.
The restriction does not apply to U.S. citizens and permanent residents and their close family members, however.
Hutchinson said he hadn't yet decided whether to extend Arkansas' public health emergency, which he first declared more than a year ago, beyond May 30 when it is set to expire.
Under a law passed during this year's legislative session, such an extension would require the approval of the Legislative Council, with the request submitted to the council by May 20.
Additionally, Hutchinson said he will no longer hold weekly news conferences on the pandemic. Instead, he said he'll hold a weekly briefing for reporters on a variety of topics, including the coronavirus.
As of Tuesday, 1,038,556 Arkansans, or about 34% of the state's population, had received at least one vaccine dose, according to Health Department figures.
Reaching the 50% mark, Hutchinson said, would require 467,206 more Arkansans to get shots.
"Obviously we want to get it higher than that, and if you look at the adult population it will be, and we want to get them fully vaccinated, but it starts with this simple foundational goal, and it's going to take a lot of work from all Arkansans in the communities to get 467,000 more Arkansans vaccinated," Hutchinson said.
He said he'll provide each county in the state with information on how many residents short they are of having 50% of their populations with at least one vaccine dose.
According to Health Department data, the percentage of residents who had received at least one vaccine dose as of Tuesday ranged from 36.1% in Dallas County to 7.7% in Miller County, where many residents have received shots in Texas that aren't reflected in Arkansas' figures.
Among Arkansas' largest counties, the percentage was 33.2% in Pulaski County, 31.2% in Benton County, 32.6% in Washington County, 20.2% in Sebastian County, 32.4% in Faulkner County, 29.5% in Saline County, 29.5% in Craighead County and 32.5% in Garland County.
Hutchinson noted that an estimated 54.9% of the state's population age 6 months and older received flu shots during the 2019-20 flu season.
That was the highest percentage since the 2009-10, season, when 55.2% of Arkansans in the age group received the shots, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveys.
"Normally, the vaccination rate in a normal year is 40 to 50%, so we're setting the goal for covid vaccinations even higher than what we normally do to avoid the flu," Hutchinson said.
Mallory said the Health Department has been working on compiling a list from "local folks" of community events around the state where the department might be able to offer the shots.
The list now has 600-700 events scheduled over the next several months, and "it's growing every day," she said.
"We told them that it doesn't matter how big or how small, if you know it's an event, or you know there's going to be people there, we want to know it," she said.
Officials previously announced plans to offer the shots at the Arkansas Travelers' opening game Tuesday at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock and the Arkansas Made-Arkansas Proud Market on May 15 at War Memorial Stadium.
Mallory said Tuesday that shots will also be offered Sunday at the Central Mall food court in Fort Smith and at several high school graduation ceremonies taking place this month at the Little Rock stadium.
Among the other events where the department hopes to offer shots are the Shirley Homecoming Celebration, the Purple Hull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race in Emerson, the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena-West Helena and the Lum & Abner Festival in Mena.
"We have farmers markets. We have car shows, motorcycle rallies, fireworks, food banks, rodeos, livestock shows," Mallory said. "If it's happening in a community, we hopefully have it on our list."
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said the department was supplying 100 doses of Johnson & Johnson's single-shot vaccine for the clinic at the Travelers game, "but we'll have access to more if needed."
Hutchinson said it's still his ultimate goal for at least 70% of Arkansas' population to be fully vaccinated so the state can achieve "herd immunity," although he said reaching that will be "challenging for our state."
Health Secretary Jose Romero offered a different view.
"It's become obvious I guess to the [CDC] and to the government that herd immunity is not an attainable goal at this time," he said. "What we want to do is to try to get as many adults as possible to be immunized.
"Every person that's fully immunized is one less person in whom the virus can replicate, and that will decrease the number of variants."
Through infections and vaccinations, he said the state will eventually "attain some degree of immunity to the virus that's now circulating," but it will "still have to deal with variants."
Since children younger than 16 are not yet eligible for the vaccines, Romero said it's important for those eligible to get vaccinated to "form a cocoon around them."
ORDERS ON HOLD
With Arkansas' inventory of unused vaccine doses growing, the state ordered only about 40% of the more than 77,000 initial doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that it was allocated for last week.
This week, the state isn't getting any new first or second doses of either vaccine after deciding to hold off on ordering any more. It also isn't getting additional doses of Johnson & Johnson.
Ator said Arkansas has about two months worth of supply. In the short term, the only vaccine he said the state might order is Johnson & Johnson if the demand is high enough.
Instead of ordering new doses, the state has been working to use up its inventory. Ator said the state had shifted about 10,000 doses to providers who needed it.
"We're just going to be monitoring it," Ator said. "When we see that our stores are getting low, then we'll start ordering it again."
The pace of vaccinations continued to show signs of slowing Tuesday, with the number of doses, including second doses of Pfizer and Moderna, that had been administered over the past week dropping below 90,000 for the first time since Feb. 25.
The vaccination goal Hutchinson announced Tuesday came the same day Biden set a goal of increasing the proportion of U.S. adults who have had at least one vaccine dose to 70% by the Fourth of July.
According to the CDC, 46.2% of Arkansas adults had received at least one dose as of Tuesday.
Nationally, 56.4% of adults had received at least one dose.
The CDC put the percentage of Arkansans, regardless of age, who have received at least one vaccine dose at 36%, with the number rising Tuesday by 1,552, to 1,085,254.
The number of Arkansans who had been fully vaccinated rose by 3,444, to 795,792, or about 26.4% of the population.
Unlike the Health Department's, the CDC's figures include doses administered by federal entities such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the military and the Bureau of Prisons.
The CDC data also includes Arkansans who were vaccinated in other states except Texas, which reports only aggregate information to the federal agency.
According to the agency, Arkansas continued to rank 44th among the states and District of Columbia in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose and 46th in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 44.5% of people had received at least one dose, and 32% were fully vaccinated.
Tuesday's increase in cases was the largest since a spike of 352 on April 21.
It came amid a slight upward trend in the state's new cases, with the average increase over a rolling seven-day period rising Tuesday to 209.
That was the first time the average had topped 200 since March 26.
The Health Department also reported Tuesday that the number of cases identified as having been caused by more-transmissible variants grew over the past week by 22, to 86.
That included an increase from 43 to 63 in the number of cases determined to have been caused by the variant from the United Kingdom, which is thought to be more lethal as well as more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain.
The number of cases confirmed to have been caused by the variant from Brazil grew from one to two, while those found to be caused by variants from California grew by one, to 21.
Pulaski, Lonoke and Poinsett counties joined Benton, Washington and Miller counties on the list of those where 5-20 cases caused by variants have been identified.
The number of counties where at least one but fewer than five cases caused by variants have been found grew by one, to 23.
The actual number of cases caused by variants is unknown because only a small percentage are tested to determine that.
In their latest forecast report, released Tuesday, researchers with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Fay. W. Boozman College of Public Health said the ending of the statewide mask mandate at the end of March means the state is "betting on the good will of Arkansans to maintain public health COVID-19 mitigation efforts until we reach herd immunity through vaccination."
"More proactive vaccination measures must be put in place to encourage/convince people to get vaccinated," the researchers wrote.
For instance, they noted a "federally funded health care center has partnered with two bars in New Orleans to offer a shot of a patron's preferred adult beverage in exchange for the adult being vaccinated with the J&J vaccine."
In Arkansas, in addition to offering the shots at athletic or music events, they said the state could offer a discount on hunting and fishing licenses to people who show they have been vaccinated, and it could set up vaccination kiosks at airports.
"Public offices, such as State Revenue Offices where Arkansans go for vehicle licenses and registration, could offer locations where people can be vaccinated while they wait to pay their taxes or get or renew their driver's license," the researchers wrote.
"Patients could be vaccinated while waiting for their appointment at a physician's or dentist's office."
They predicted the state's cumulative count of cases would increase by more than 30,000 by June 30, with the cumulative hospitalizations increasing by 1,209.
ACTIVE CASES RISE
After rising Monday, the number of Arkansas' covid-19 patients who were on ventilators fell Tuesday by one, to 28.
The cases that were added to the state's tallies included 174 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.
The other 122 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 336,462.
That comprised 263,410 confirmed cases and 73,052 probable ones.
The number of cases that were considered active rose by 104, to 2,043, as new cases outpaced recoveries.
Benton County had the most new cases, 43, followed by Washington County with 42 and Pulaski County with 27.
The Health Department's count of cases among prison and jail inmates rose by one.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said the state's prisons didn't have any new cases Tuesday.
The state's death toll rose by four, to 4,569 among confirmed cases and by one, to 1,183 among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted-living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths rose by one, to 2,078.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 28, to 15,916.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by six, to 1,625.