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Hutchinson encourage vaccination as cases plateau

by Caitlan Butler | April 7, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson answers a question during the weekly COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday, April 6, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson dedicated much of the time spent at this week’s COVID-19 update emphasizing the importance of being vaccinated against the virus and the state’s efforts at ensuring there is equity in vaccine availability throughout the state.

“I wanted to emphasize today the importance of getting vaccination out in a minority community which currently is behind in terms of their vaccination as compared to the percent of the population, so we want to continue to emphasize the equity of our vaccine distribution and how important it is in every aspect in our communities here in Arkansas,” he said.

Hutchinson highlighted a disparity in vaccinations among Black Arkansans, who have received about 10% of vaccine doses administered so far in the state despite making up about 15% of the state’s population. The ADH did not have data Tuesday on the demographic breakdown of vaccination rates in Union County.

Dr. Michelle Smith, director of the ADH’s Office of Minority Health, spoke to some of the state’s efforts to make vaccines accessible to underserved communities throughout the state, including racial and ethnic minorities, disabled people, faith-based communities, rural communities and elderly people.

She said her office has worked with local partners, regional hospitals and other offices of state government to create vaccine equity “strike teams” to visit such underserved communities and both provide education about the COVID-19 vaccines available, as well as offer vaccine clinics in locations that such communities can access more easily.

“As vaccine distribution continues, ensuring racial equity is important for mitigating the disproportionate impacts on people of color, preventing widening health disparities and achieving broad population immunity,” Smith said.

She encouraged Arkansans interested in furthering the goal of reaching herd immunity and ensuring equity in vaccine distribution to volunteer with a strike team in their communities. Those interested should call 501-661-2622.

Dr. Marlene Battle, a pharmacist in Little Rock, spoke about volunteering to administer vaccines in a local church in addition to her efforts at the pharmacy she works at.

“We must continue to encourage people to overcome their doubts and their fears. For those of us who have been vaccinated, let us be ambassadors on spreading the word to others on getting the vaccine,” she said.

ADH Secretary Dr. Jose Romero also highlighted increasing numbers of Arkansans who are not getting a second dose of their COVID vaccine. Those who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine during their initial vaccination visit are recommended to get a second dose of whichever vaccine they received two weeks to a month after the first dose.

“I want to remind everyone of the importance of getting the scond vaccine dose if you have received either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine. Remember, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the only single dose vaccine,” he said. “We’re starting to see increasing numbers of individuals who aren’t returning or who have missed their second dose, and we want them to please catch up on that.”

He said those who missed their second dose appointment can call the ADH’s vaccine help hotline at 1-800-985-6030 for assistance in setting a new appointment.

Johnny Key, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Education, said the ADE is starting to reach out to local school districts and working with the ADH to potentially hold vaccine clinics at schools for people over the age of 16, who are now eligible to receive the vaccine.

“If we can get more of these students both doses of their vaccines it will set the stage for a good summer and returning to school back in the fall,” Key said.

Hutchinson also said he’s hoping that by fall, there will be FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) approval to vaccinate those 12 and older against the virus.

Case growth across the state plateaued this week, with only 15 fewer new cases reported Tuesday than were on Tuesday, March 31. Hutchinson urged Arkansans to be aware that COVID-19 is still spreading within communities.

“I asked Dr. Romero and Dr. (Jennifer) Dillaha (ADH Director of Immunizations), ‘do we still have community spread of COVID-19?’ And the answer was yes,” he said. “And that’s just a reminder to us that when you think about 163 Arkansans that we have tested positive for COVID-19, you multiply that by a higher number that are likely to be infected in Arkansas that just haven’t been tested, then you’re getting to see a number that you have to be mindful that COVID-19 is still in our communities.”

“You don’t want to catch COVID-19 when the vaccination is available to you,” he added.

Vaccination efforts are ongoing, he noted, and about 800,000 Arkansans have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

Several vaccination clinics are ongoing this week in the Southwest hospital region where Union County sits. This week, daily clinics will be held through Friday at the Miller County Local Health Unit, at 503 Walnut in Texarkana. For the rest of the week, the clinic will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Additionally, on Thursday, April 8, the ADH will hold clinics at the Sevier County Local Health Unit, at 304 N. 4th St. in DeQueen; and at the Montgomery County Local Health Unit, at 346 Luzerne in Mt. Ida. The clinic in DeQueen will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the clinic in Mt. Ida will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

On Friday, April 9, ADH vaccine clinics will be held at the Clark County Local Health Unit, at 605 S. 10th St. in Arkadelphia; and at the Howard County Local Health Unit, at 201 E. Hempstead in Nashville. Both clinics will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

All ADH clinics are held by appointment only. To set an appointment at an ADH vaccine clinic scheduled for next week, call 1-800-985-6030. There will be no out of pocket costs to any person seeking vaccination, though those with insurance may be asked to show their cards.

A non-ADH vaccine clinic will also be held on Thursday in Chidester, Ouachita County, at 118 Willow Street, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 870-836-5015 to set an appointment.

COVID-19 vaccines are also being offered in Union County at the Medical Center of South Arkansas, Melvin’s Discount Pharmacy and Walmart. To set an appointment at MCSA, call 870-863-2620; to do so at Melvin’s, call 870-863-4155; and for an appointment at Walmart, visit walmart.com/COVID.

Hutchinson said 64% of Arkansans 65 or older have received at least one vaccine dose, which he acknowledged as positive.

“We want to keep that high, we want to get it higher, but this is good news for that population and our vaccination efforts.”

He encouraged those seeking assistance with setting a vaccine appointment to call the ADH hotline number.

See local COVID case numbers here.

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