ARKANSAS, USA — The focus for Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson's weekly press update Tuesday (July 6) was the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 and vaccination efforts in the state.
Hutchinson spoke as Arkansas recently passed 1 million Arkansans fully immunized (42.27% of the population 12 and up). Arkansas is still falling behind on vaccination rates compared to other states, especially in rural communities. Hutchinson has set a goal to have 50% of the state's population fully vaccinated by July 30, 2021.
To combat vaccine hesitancy from continuing to linger, Hutchinson announced he is starting Community COVID Conversations, a series of statewide community discussions surrounding the vaccines. He hopes this will allow Arkansans to express concerns and ask questions about the virus and vaccination efforts. Panels of healthcare and community leaders will be present at the community meetings. The first one is scheduled to take place July 8 at the Veterans Park Event Center in Cabot.
"The goal is, of course, is to engage our communities at the local level and say, What can we do more to overcome hesitancy?" Hutchinson said. "To satisfy the questions of the community, and to encourage vaccinations so that we can increase the rate here in Arkansas to beat the most recent Delta variant that the vaccine can address."
Governor Hutchinson is also calling on employers to give paid time off to workers worried about losing income from taking time off to get their shots or recover from any reactions to the vaccines that may occur. He also said if a worksite needs a clinic to help employees get vaccinated, company leaders should reach out to the Arkansas Department of Health. Since vaccines are not mandated in many places, Hutchinson hopes managers are speaking with their staff members about the benefits of getting vaccinated and answering any questions they might have.
"...we're encouraging all employers, not just the largest ones but all employers, to step back and put some extra effort into this push to get more and more employees vaccinated," said Randy Zook, president/CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, during Tuesday's press conference.
Zook said a provision in the American Relief Plan provides a 100% tax credit for the cost associated with paid time off for any employer with fewer than 500 employees - which encompasses 90% of businesses in Arkansas.
"This is a new deal," Zook stated. "It's very simple to do. A little bit of paperwork. An IRS form readily available on their site."
Alarming news from Tuesday's update was that 55 more Arkansans had been hospitalized from the virus, along with 270 new cases and six additional deaths. This is the largest increase in hospitalizations since January in Arkansas and the largest increase in hospitalizations since vaccines have become available in the state.
"While we were winning this battle in April, when we were down at a very low level in all of those categories of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, we are losing ground in July," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson says the spread of the Delta variant is to blame for the uptick in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations in Arkansas. 50% of new Covid-19 cases nationally are from the Delta variant, and the same is true in Arkansas.
"The good news is that the vaccine is effective against all variants, including the Delta variants," Hutchinson said.
The average age of Arkansans hospitalized from COVID-19 has dipped nearly 10 years from 63 in November 2020 to 54 in June 2021, data from the Arkansas Department of Health depicts. Deaths from the virus followed a similar pattern.
Despite the alarming case trends, Governor Hutchinson said that he still doesn't believe the state will face a third Covid-19 wave during Tuesday's press conference as state vaccination rates reach nearly 50%.
You can watch the full news update below.