As Delta variant spreads, Gov. Hutchinson plans statewide community meetings to address COVID-19 vaccination concerns
July 12-18, 2021
By Wesley Brown
After the Arkansas Department of Health reported the largest spike in COVID-19 cases since February, including the rapid spread of the Delta variant, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday that he will hold a series of “townhall-like” meetings statewide to hear first-hand the concerns of Arkansans about COVID-19 and vaccinations.
The first of the governor’s “Community Covid Conversations” was held on Thursday (July 8) in Cabot to answer questions in the hope of encouraging more Arkansans to receive the vaccine. Hutchinson has set a goal of vaccinating 50% of Arkansas’ 3 million-plus population by the end of July. As of July 6, however, only 42% or 1,003,803 Arkansans aged 12 or older have taken the shot, according to the Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard.
“It starts with a conversation with communities,” Hutchinson said during his July 6 press briefing. “It does come down to individual responsibility. I’m the leader of this state. I want to do all I can. It would be easier for me to sit back and say, ‘I’m weary of this COVID conversation.’ I’m sure everybody in this room is. But that’s not leadership. Leadership is saying, ‘Let’s plow on.... let’s get through this. Let’s see if we can do a little bit better.’”
Hutchinson’s statewide COVID-19 conversations comes only days after the popular Republican governor said during a nationwide CNN interview on Sunday that he does not believe Arkansas will see a third COVID-19 surge since the pandemic began in March 2020, even as the new Delta variant spreads across the state. In the interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, Hutchinson said the solution to the recent spike is not to impose new restrictions but to increase the number of unvaccinated Arkansans.
“It is our younger adults that are getting hit with the Delta variant, which is more contagious and has more severe consequences,” Hutchinson told the CNN anchor. “And that is the concern that is causing the increase in hospitalizations.”
On Wednesday, ADH reported a whopping 1,000 new cases, 432 hospitalizations, and seven additional deaths, bringing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began to 353,095. The increase in the number of cases is the largest single-day increase since February, while the rise in hospitalizations at the highest level since early March. In his weekly press briefing, Hutchinson said although over one million Arkansans have been fully vaccinated, that is not enough to stop the spread.
“We are losing ground in January,” said Hutchinson.
The CNN appearance for the term-limited Arkansas governor, who is increasingly seen as a possible Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential race, followed an Independence Day speech where President Joe Biden also encouraged all Americans to get the COVID-19 shot.
In his Fourth of July speech from the White House, Biden highlighted the fact that 300 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been delivered to Americans in his first 150 days of office. However, the Democratic president also acknowledged that the administration fell well short of its goal of administering at least one shot to every adult by July 4.
“As I said in my Independence Day address to the nation, we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from this deadly virus,” said Biden. “But our fight against this virus is not over. Right now, as I speak to you, millions of Americans are still unvaccinated and unprotected. And because of that, their communities are at risk. Their friends are at risk. The people they care about are at risk. This is an even bigger concern because of the Delta variant.”
As of July 1, 54.6% of the nation’s 330 million-plus population had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Of that total, 157,636,088 or 47.5% of the nation has been fully vaccinated as of July 7, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control’s (CDC) COVID data tracker.
At the same time, COVID-19 cases are increasing in some parts of the country, and on June 23, 2021, the U.S. surpassed 600,000 total deaths from COVID-19. Additionally, as cited by Hutchinson and a recent report by the CDC, vaccination rates are lowest among adults ages 18-39.
Earlier on June 15, the CDC first announced classification of the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617.2, known as Delta, as a “variant of concern” because it spreads more easily. Besides the Delta variant, there are three other COVID-19 offshoots in the U.S., including the Alpha variant discovered in December 2020, and the Beta and Gamma varieties detected in January 2021.
“The emergence and spread of variants also have the potential to chip away at our nation’s progress to end this pandemic. The spread of the more transmissible B.1.617.2 variant combined with the U.S. population that remains unvaccinated leaves many people at risk of infection,” said the CDC. “With B.1.617.2 now spreading across the country and infecting people worldwide, it’s more important than ever that all eligible people get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
According to the CDC, as the vaccine has become widely available, younger people have been the most hesitant to get it. In November 2020, the average age of those hospitalized with COVID-19 was 64. As people that age and older are taking the vaccine, the average age of those hospitalized has declined to 54. The average age of those who have died from COVID has decreased from 78 to 66.
During his press conference, Hutchinson also encouraged employers to provide paid time off for employees to get the vaccination and for those who may need time off to recover from a reaction to the vaccine. He also noted that the 2,156,928 doses of the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson vaccines already administered in Arkansas are effective against all COVID variants.
“I am asking employers in our state to take a leadership role in encouraging vaccinations in the workplace. Let me emphasize, employers were the first ones to push us. ‘We need the vaccine,’ said Hutchinson. “They’ve done an incredible job of leading and getting their workplace vaccinated early on during the pandemic. We need them to come back and to reemphasize the need for vaccinations in the workplace.”
Appearing with the governor, Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas, said that President Biden’s American Rescue Plan provides 100% tax credit for the cost of paid time off for a business with fewer than 500 employees.
“This is a new deal,” Mr. Zook said. “It’s very simple to do ... a little bit of paperwork.”
Across the U.S., the current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (12,514) increased 9.1% compared with the previous 7-day moving average (11,472), according to the CDC. Compared with the highest peak of 252,905 cases on Jan. 10, 2021, the current 7-day average decreased 95.0%. A total of 33,496,454 COVID-19 cases have been reported as of June 30.
Gov. Hutchinson addresses "community concerns" as new COVID-19 strain ravages state's unvaccinated ranks.