Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday announced that all Arkansans 16 and older are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in the state.
Hutchinson said he expects the announcement will increase demand for vaccine in the state, and will allow more of the vaccine appointments available through local and retail pharmacies, clinics, and other opportunities to be filled moving forward.
“This will obviously increase the demand for the vaccines, it might take some time to get the appointment that you want, but we are opening it up because we want to make sure we maximize every opportunity to get this life-saving vaccine into the arms of Arkansans and to accelerate that whenever we can.”
President Biden had asked that governors make 90% of adults in the US eligible for the vaccine by April 19.
“Obviously, we are meeting that goal today, because as of today it is full open if you above 16 to get the vacine,” he said. “We want Arkansans to get it, because this is our path out of the pandemic, it is the way to get there quicker, and we want to make sure we give every Arkansan that opportunity.”
Hutchinson added that the governor’s COVID-19 task force informed him this week that they expect an increase of about 5.4 million doses of vaccine to be distributed weekly over at least the next three weeks, which will mean about 25,000 additional doses of vaccine available in Arkansas each week.
Those who are seeking help finding an appointment in Arkansas can call the vaccine hot line at 1-800-985-6030.
Mask mandate to expire March 30
The governor on Tuesday announced that the mask mandate in the state of Arkansas will be lifted effective today.
The governor said that the criteria previously established for removing the mandate has been met, and the mandate will expire a day early today on March 30.
In guidelines he outlined a month ago, Hutchinson said he would lift the mandate if the combined PCR and antigen test positivity rate in the state was below 10% with at least an average of 7,500 tests per day. Testing fell below that threshold he said in part due to decreased demand, so the criteria moved to the total number of hospitalizations in the state. The governor had previously set 750 Arkansans in hospitals as the number the state would need to be below to remove the mandate, and there are currently 170 Arkansans hospitalized in the state.
The announcement comes just a day after President Biden on Monday asked governors, mayors, and other leaders to continue mask mandates and other health measures for just a bit longer in light of a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases nationally. The presidents comments came as CDC director Rochelle Walensky on Monday warned of a potential 4th wave of virus cases in the coming months.
The governor acknowledged Biden’s admonition, but said that his decision in the state of Arkansas to lift the mandate had already been made.
“We made our decision in Arkansas based upon the criteria that we set,” Hutchinson said. “This is a goal we had, we achieved that, so we stuck with the principle that was outlined in the lifting of the mask mandate.”
Hutchinson asked that individuals continue to respect the wishes of businesses, schools, hospitals, government buildings, and other facilities that choose to continue to require masks for entry.
“While we are lifting the statewide mask mandate, it does not mean that it ends at every venue, and people will make their own decisions in that regard, both businesses and individuals,” he said.
“Please be respectful and mindful that while the mask mandate is lifted, there will be many that will continue to wear it, many businesses will continue to require it. Be respectful of that. If you don’t want to comply with that, you have options to go somewhere else.”
The governor said schools districts can make their own decisions on masks as well. That decision will be made by the local school boards, he said.
Hutchinson did reverse course on his previous comments about local governments establishing their own mask mandates.
When asked on Tuesday, Hutchinson said removal of the state-wide mandate would allow room for local municipalities to establish their own mask requirements should they choose to do so.
Hutchinson announced that COVID-19 cases in Arkansas increased by 178 on Tuesday.
The state also announced 15 new deaths as a result of the virus, bringing the toll in the state to 5,616 since the pandemic began.
Hospitalizations were up by 6, bringing the total number of Arkansans hospitalized in the state to 170. There are 25 patients on ventilators, down 3 from yesterday.
There are currently 1,717 cases of COVID-19 considered active in the state, which includes those that have tested positive by both PCR and antigen testing methods.
The state reported 2,068 new PCR tests on Tuesday, along with 1,754 new antigen tests.
The new cases bring the total cumulative count in Arkansas to 330,186 since the pandemic began.
The top counties for new cases on Tuesday were Washington (29), Benton (25), Pulaski (20), Sebastian (10), and Lonoke (8).
Variants identified in the state
Arkansas secretary of health Jose Romero gave a brief update on the presence of some troubling COVID-19 variants in the state.
Romero said the CDC has identified cases of the B117 variant, otherwise known as the UK variant, of the virus in the state.
“That variant has increased over the last few weeks…we have had 7 of those isolated with the largest number in the last week,” he said.
Romero said 10 cases of variants from California variants B1427 and B1429 have also been identified in the state in the last two weeks.
“They are here, they are beginning to form part of the normal repertoire of viruses in the state, but we are keeping a close eye on this,” he said.