Tuesday, March 2, 2021

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Andrew DeMillo – AP, Col. Robert “Gator” Ator, Andrew Epperson – KNWA, Brett Rains – 40/29, Allie Lynch – 5News KFSM, Jay Bir – KARK 4/Fox 16, Benjamin Hardy – ANNN, Shelby Rose – KATV, Dr. Jose Romero, Jacqueline Frolich – KUAF, Secretary Johnny Key (ADE), Andy Davis – ADG, Governor Asa Hutchinson, Dr. Mike Cima

Governor Asa Hutchinson  12:48:19

Thank you for joining me for today’s COVID-19 weekly update. I’m pleased to be joined today by Secretary Dr. Jose Romero of the Department of Health. Also Secretary Johnny Key of Department of Education. We have Colonel Rob Ator, who’s our program coordinator for vaccine distribution. And primarily, we want to first talk about vaccines today. And then we’ll move into our case report. And let’s just go ahead and look at the chart that gives our vaccine report. And it shows that we have received in the state and under the state program 975,000. And we have allocated 60 not allocated, we have put those vaccines into the arms of Arkansans by 62.4% of those. And you can see just look at the day before, obviously the beginning of that week, we receive our vaccine allocation, we’ve received 73,000 doses, we’ve given out 15,000 last 24 hours. So as the week progresses, you’ll see those numbers as doses given going up. The federal programs you can see which is the retail pharmacy, Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, you know, they are continuing to give out their vaccines they receive some, primarily now through Walmart, as the federal partner, the others were allocated in terms of the long term care facilities, which is primarily been done. And so you’ll see continuing to reporting on that. We are in currently phase 1-B vaccine administration, which is our Kansans, aged 65 or older, as well as education workers, including K through 12. childcare, as well. And let me just review a little bit for a second. If you look at all of 1-B, which is all of the categories in 1-B, that’s estimated to be 520,000 people still remaining to be vaccinated. If you look at the fact that we are getting conservatively 82,000 doses per week, and we have four weeks left in March, that would be 328,000 doses that we’re going to receive versus 520,000, that needs to be vaccinated in 1-B. But of course, if you look at 70% of the 520,000, that we need to have vaccinated in 1-B, that’s a closer number of 364,000. So 364,000 to be administered the vaccine, with anticipated 328,000 doses coming in. Now that supply could increase some so I think we’re close to meeting that goal of finishing 1-B by the end of March. And if you’ll remember we did move 65 plus in there. So not only are we doing the original one, B, but we’re adding over 100,000 of 65 plus to that mix as well. And so we’re making progress step by step. And so hopefully that’s a word of encouragement for those in the 1-C category, that at some point in April, we want to get to you and if we’re the supply increases, we’ll get to that sooner. And that leads to the announcement for today that I’m expanding phase 1-B after consultation with our Secretary Romero Department of Health. 1- B group will be expanded effective today to include food manufacturing workers, and the food manufacturing workers includes meat processing and grain oilseed milling, this is estimated to be 49,000 Arkansans and these groups, this will be from poultry processors to meat processors to grain processors. They can arrange through their employer primarily, which the employer will be trying to set up clinics for these workers. And they can be arranged at their worksite. They can be arranged through their local provider and the employers we work in through that process. They’ll also be available through other community pharmacies or clinics around the state. And the reason that we feel comfortable in adding this addition is because if you look this month with our vaccines coming in, we’re on schedule and we want to stay on schedule, we need to add this additional group. In addition, I’m pleased to announce that based upon the call with the White hHouse Coronavirus Task Force today that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be increase by 700,000 nationwide for the state allocations, which means about to 2500 to 3000 more doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine to Arkansas. In addition, of course, we know that J&J has been approved by the FDA, and that Arkansas will receive 24,000 J&J doses for the first time this week, and we’ll receive them later this week for distribution. And that J&J vaccine is what’s going to give us an extra margin that we can move in and start with our poultry workers and our other food manufacturing workers that have been identified. And let’s go on to the next graph. Another thing we want to do is to continue to increase the availability of vaccines in rural parts of our state. And so our Department of Health will be designating one location in each of the public health regions for vaccine distribution. These clinics will be set up and held each week in counties with low vaccination rates. And it’ll be initially on a first come first serve basis. But we envisioned having next week, a statewide toll free number that can be called to help identify where they can go for these vaccine clinics. We’ll provide more information to you next week on that. And those locations will be provided in on our Department of Health website, when they’re specifically identified. No out of pocket expense, just bring your insurance card, and if you have insurance, they can build their insurance. But don’t let anything stop you from getting your vaccine, no out of pocket money is required. And then you can return for your second dose at the designated time. If you go to the next graph, you’ll see the initial counties that we’re targeting, which is Lee County, Mississippi County, Dallasm Pulaski, and Conway will be the areas that will have these Department of Health run vaccines for local health departments. And then we wanted to be able to see how we’re doing in terms of the percent of the population. So we have moved through the 70 plus population in Arkansas, and based upon the Department of Health Data, it looks like we have vaccinated 50% of the 70 Plus. Now that and that’s one dose fully vaccinated 24.7, which those will soon get their second dose as well. How do I think this represents how we’re doing? I think it shows some resistance to the vaccine that we need to overcome. We want to make sure we continue to encourage those that are in the right age group. The right criteria to get the vaccination is critical, important for our entire success in ending this pandemic. So we it’s a good place to be now. But we want that number to increase Dr. Romero particularly to see like to see that 50% get up to 70%. The next graph, let’s go on to our cases. And if you look at our cases, we continue to hold steady, if not be on the decline. And there’s some significant good news here, particularly in the hospitalizations that you can see our hospitalizations have declined another 25. And the ventilators are down as well. We look at our number of new cases right in the middle there total cases. And then the change from yesterday, we have 440 new cases, with an increase of 12 active cases and four deaths. We’re always saddened by those deaths. But we’re very glad that that number is so much less than it has been in previous weeks. Our testing is modest. It’s about almost 5000 tests. And we’d like to see it higher, but it’s just a reality of where we are today with that lower testing. And and then if you look at the next one, you’ll see the trend lines. And of course that spike right in the middle of that is because we filled it in with data. It was a data correction over the weekend that showed that one spike and that was really reflecting cases that was coming in from January and I think before February 14 as well. So with that you can see we’re still in the right direction in terms of our cases. And let’s go to the next one. Hospitalizations go down. Great news for us. One of the lowest points of hospitalization since last August.  And then number of active cases is still in the right trend direction. All good news there. And then you look at the positivity rate. 10% is where we’d like to stay below and you see how many for a month over month, we’re way above 10% positivity rate. That is down below 10% comfortably. And we want to keep it that way, because that indicates less transmission in the community. And then I believe that’s the end of that. And let me close by saying before I turn over Dr. Romero, that our Department of Health working with a CDC has confirmed, for the first time a UK variant in the state of Arkansas. This is a result of our surveillance testing, working with a CDC that identified this UK variant. This is not a surprise to us. We expected the UK variant to be here, it’s just simply a matter that it is now been documented that the UK variant is here. And it’s a reminder that we have to be cautious. We have to remind ourselves to the viruses in there. And what the scientists say about the UK variant is that it is more contagious. And so for all of those reasons, let’s continue to adhere to the guidelines. And let’s do everything we can to get vaccinated so that we can be safe. With that. Let me invite Dr. Romero for his comments.

Dr. Jose Romero  13:00:03

Thank you, Governor. So, yesterday, the ACIP of the CDC authorized the use of Johnson’s new vaccine approved that also in addition to the FDA and made recommendations for its use. That vaccine is highly efficacious in preventing death and hospitalizations. It is authorized for use among the wide population of the United States when the time comes. It does prevent death. As I said before, and that is a major advantage of that vaccine. There were no deaths in the in the study group, it appears to be no more reactive-genic than the current vaccines. And we don’t think it’s going to have the very, very, very small risk of anaphylaxis. But we’ll see once we use it in public, we will be receiving that vaccine and distributing it out through the state of the state without any specific designation for that vaccine. So that advantage of that vaccine is that it can be stored at room temperature, and it can give immunity after one dose. So whereas the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines require two dose of vaccine to become fully immunized, a single dose of the Janssen vaccine, no Johnson and Johnson vaccine will give you that protection. So when available, take advantage of being able to get that vaccine. With regard to our immunization efforts, as the governor said, we’ve achieved about 50% immunization in that older age group, we want to see that get up to 70%, because that is herd immunity. And once you have that group that that that degree of immunization in that group that that herd, if you will, is protected, we add the 65 to that group, it’s going to drop a little bit, but we’re going to push that forward, and we will be able to hit these numbers. We are distributing the vaccine efficiently at this point. We’re trying to equitably distribute the vaccine among our counties. And sorry, Colonel Ator is doing that. With regard to the variant that was identified it was, as was mentioned by the governor, this is not something that we did not expect. I’m surprise that we hadn’t found it earlier. It simply reminds us that we need to manage the use of the mask, regardless of whether it’s a mandated issue or not. We need to keep these masks and use them. And it also reinforces the need to immunize. Without immunization we won’t be able to protect against these variants. So again, the vaccines that we currently have available are effective against the UK variant. So I’ll stop here and turn it back over to the governor. Thank you.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:02:51

Let me invite Secretary Key to comment on our schools.

Secretary Johnny Key (ADE)  13:03:00

Thank you Governor. Arkansas schools are recovering from the weather situation we had a couple of weeks ago. I think most of those schools that had been impacted by the damage to their buildings or to water pipes have been able to return on site and we continue to work To identify and calculate the damage due to that. But I do want to point out that Arkansas schools have and continue to have a successful school year, especially when you compare two states around the nation who have still yet to return to onsite instruction. If you review the recent CDC guidance that was reissued within the last couple of weeks, and you compare that to how we have been operating in Arkansas, it very much parallels what we have been doing here through the entire school year, which has been a the biggest contributing factor is we have worked with schools to follow the guidelines. And with all the good news that we have now, about our case counts, this is no time for us to let up, especially in our schools. Our in school case numbers are reflecting the positive trends are in the communities. And we want that to continue. We have concluded a successful wrestling season are in the process of concluding. We’re in the process of concluding a successful swim and dive season with respect to our student athletes, and now we’re going into tournament season with basketball. So I would just encourage all of our schools, all of our personnel, all of our parents, and in our students to continue the good work that you’ve been doing, so that we can continue to have a successful school year and end this school year, with with optimism that going into next year, that will be back to what we all hoped would be a normal school situation across the state. Thank you.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:05:04

With that, we’ll take any questions.

Andy Davis – ADG  13:05:07

In terms of expanding the 1-B group, What’s the reason that you chose the food manufacturing workers?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:05:14

Excellent question. And the answer is, we look back on the history of our cases, and where we had early spikes in cases breakouts as well as deaths and, and we had a real Jeopardy with those that were in the food processing industry. And so again, we wanted to move them in there first, because they work, all of those that are in the category that identified of agriculture, food manufacturing, they weren’t close in proximity to each other. And so that was the reason that they’re on the front line. They’re obviously an essential worker. But in addition, they’re an exposed worker because of that, and we wanted to move them in.

Andy Davis – ADG  13:06:07

it only certain types of people who work in that industry like who actually work on the frontlines, or is it just anybody who works in that industry?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:06:16

Anybody who meets that category is eligible?

Jay Bir – KARK 4/Fox 16  13:06:22

Is there any consideration for restaurant workers, as I’m sure you’ve seen some restaurants kind of went full bars with it, starting on Friday. So was there any credence given to them considering you know, kind of what the trend looked like at least early on?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:06:39

The restaurant workers are in what category C… 1-C. So they’re in 1-C. So hopefully, we’ll get to them soon. We recognize that they need vaccinations as well. But that’s a category that the CDC guidelines have recommended them to be in.

Jay Bir – KARK 4/Fox 16  13:07:01

What your reaction to see in some restaurants and other were some in Saline County, there were some in Little Rock that kind of went back to operating as normal ones, some of those guidelines were sort of loosened up a little bit.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:07:14

Well, we encourage them to have appropriate precautions in place. Most restaurants continue to follow the guidelines, which has space limitations, but also the servicers to wear a mask, which is still a requirement, if you can’t socially distance. And so we want them to be careful. And and then we also want the consumers you know, don’t go to someplace that’s taking risky action. So it goes don’t go someplace that you feel uncomfortable, or they’re not taking the right precautions, reward those that are. I think that’s the marketplace and everybody knows today, what is necessary, they need to act on what they know.

Jay Bir – KARK 4/Fox 16  13:08:01

Dr. Fauci is saying that, you know, mask mandate should probably be in place until maybe 2022. So I guess, you know how to respond to that, considering you know, we’re looking at the end of March to maybe lift that mandate.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:08:15

Well, I’ve said out that I think what Dr. Fauci says that if you want to take every precaution, maybe that’s a good idea down the road to continue, I think, you know, I’ve, I’ve had my vaccine, I’m 70 plus, so I’ve had my vaccine. But I continue to wear a mask both to set a good example, but also because they’re still studying as to whether it is transmissible even though you’ve had the vaccine. And so I think we’re going to learn a lot between now and then. And hopefully, that will not be necessary, but we’ll continue to listen.

Jay Bir – KARK 4/Fox 16  13:08:55

In those five specific counties, is that going to be open to all residents within that county? Because I know we’re focusing on some of those counties that have lower vaccination, taking? Or is it still going to be 1-B categories, even though

Andrew Epperson – KNWA  13:09:07

Hey, Governor, Andrew Epperson. here from KNWA news. We’ve gotten reports from people who have medical conditions serious enough to where their doctors are giving them notes saying you need to get a vaccine as soon as possible. But they can’t right now, just because of the state set up. They’re going over state lines to Oklahoma or Louisiana to get vaccinations just because of how those states are set up. Have you thought about perhaps moving these folks up to 1-B? And why If so, or if not,. They have to follow the category? So yes, good point. Good question. So even with ows is first come, first serve, but it needs to be within that category. And that’s important, because as we go into having a toll free number that you can come and they can assign you someplace that would inundate us if they called when they weren’t in the right category. If they’re in 1-C their calling now, it would clog the system. It’s going to be challenging anyway. But you need to make sure you’re in the priority, and qualified and it’s your turn, and then we’ll help get that set up. Let’s go remotely and see if there’s any questions.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:10:18

I’m going to let Dr. Romero comment on that. I would say at the outset, we’ve talked about it a lot. And the CDC guidelines is so broad in the in the underlying conditions that it would be well over a million people in Arkansas. And for that reason, we can’t just bring them all in and and have those vaccinated early. And so we believe when we lowered it to 65, that we’re going to be catching the most vulnerable of those with underlying conditions. And so we chose to take that path. Dr. Romero?

Dr. Jose Romero  13:11:04

So our guidelines are based on those recommendations from the ACIP. The ACIP made their recommendations based on the issue of availability of vaccine and risk factors for the individual. And so those individuals with comorbid conditions are considered at risk. And were distributed to the 1-C category based primarily on the amount of vaccine that would be available at the time the guidelines were were determined now. As we have more vaccine as vaccine ramps up, there may be some shift in this. But we’re still staying with that recommendation because we think it is the most equitable. It is a fairly the vaccine within the population. And we still are targeting those individuals at highest risk for complication, and death and the highest risk that has been demonstrated throughout the pandemic. Thank you.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:12:03

Next question.

Shelby Rose – KATV  13:12:05

Yes, this is [Shelby] Rose with KATV. This could be a question for either you or Dr. Romero. I just want a bigger explanation as to this data dump. And where where was the problem in terms of why these cases from January are now being reported?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:12:20

Do you want Dr. Cima to handle? Yeah…. I’ll ask our data experts to come up here and to talk about this.

Dr. Mike Cima  13:12:37

Yes, thank you for the question. So we did do a data cleanup this past weekend. This is not the first time that we have done it. The speed at which data is generated, transmitted, analyzed, has been considerable throughout this entire pandemic. We do have quality control mechanisms in place to identify when issues arise. And then when we identify those issues we make our partners aware of that and then we made the correction because at the end of the day, we want to make sure that we’re getting the data out to the to our stakeholders and to the people of Arkansas.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:13:14

And if you recall, Dr. Cima, I think correct me if I’m wrong here, but in times past, it might be a commercial provider that sends in the data late, it might have been happened in January, but they save it and send it in in one batch, which we don’t ask them to do. But that allows that to the accumulation. And so that’s one factor that allows that has to be cleaned up and inserted into the system. Another question,

Jacqueline Frolich – KUAF  13:13:50

Governor, this is Jacqueline Frolich with KUAF-NPR and my question is off topic, it regard your decision on SB 24, Stand your ground?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:14:02

I will make an announcement on that tomorrow, on ‘stand your ground’ and ‘voter id’ also is pending. So that final decision would be made tomorrow, and we’ll make sure everybody’s aware of that.

Brett Rains – 40/29  13:14:18

Good afternoon, Governor. It’s Brett Rains with 4029 News. Can you provide any additional information about the first confirmed case of the UK variant, how that person’s doing? What region of the state, they travel from out of state, please provide more details if you’re able.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:14:32

Sure. Dr. Romero.?

Dr. Jose Romero  13:14:38

So for reasons of HIPAA, we would not disclose that information, because it is a sole case. And we can only tell you that the case occurred in the state that that data was reported to us. And the virus has been confirmed by sequencing. But from the Tennessee State lab, so we know that it is a variant but we’re not at liberty to give other information regarding the patient itself. Thank you.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:15:07

Another question.

Andrew DeMillo – AP  13:15:07

And Governor This is Andrew with AP had a COVID question and non-COVID question for you. The presence of a variant in the state would that factor in at all to your decision on whether it’s going to lift the mask mandate, by the by the end of the month? I would that, would that enter into your thinking on looking at that. And the non-COVID question I had was, as vice chairman of the National Governors Association, wanted to see if you had any thoughts on Governor Cuomo and the allegations against him and whether he should resign as chairman of NGA.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:15:57

Thank you, Andrew, and in reference to Governor Cuomo. Anytime you have allegations that are made by someone, in this case, a woman, very serious allegations, they need to be given a level of need to be given credibility. And I’m glad that there’s an independent investigation ongoing. And I think we should all wait to the results of an independent investigation and see where that conclusion leads everyone. And in terms of the NGA, this is you know, the chairmanship is in the democratic governorships and so they control who represents them, although its entire NGA, it is selected by the Democratic governors just like I was put up as Vice Chair representing the Republican governors. So it’s a little bit different situation than normal. But I think we should all wait until that independent investigation which needs to be conducted is concluded. In terms of the variant and the mask mandate. I thought you were going to ask the question is whether if I would have changed the directives to guidelines last Friday, had I known a variant was here? And the answer is yes, because I presumed it was here at the time. And so while the variants presence is always a factor that should be considered. The most important factor to me is the level of community spread, the number of cases, but also the hospitalizations and we have set very specific criteria that we would have to meet before the mask mandate would become a guideline. And that has to do with cases. It has to do with positivity rate, as well as hospitalization. So we’re gonna watch that criteria. And that’s it. And that’s a reason we set that so we’d have something objective to look at as we make the decision next into March. Any other questions?

Shelby Rose – KATV  13:18:14

[Allie Lynch] Hi, Governor, this is Allie Lynch with fighting….. [Shelby Rose] about SB 6 in your total abortion ban that is expected to be heard in the committee today. Do you have a statement regarding that bill itself?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:18:28

Listen, I’m getting a stack of bills that are somewhat controversial. And I’m going to look at those one at a time. Tomorrow, I need to deal with ‘stand your ground’ and make a statement on that. And I will. There’ll be a couple others and then SB 6, it looks like it will get to my desk. I’ve always historically signed every pro life bill that’s come to my desk. This one has caused some pause because it is a direct challenge to Roe vs Wade and does not include a rape and incest as exceptions. But I want to look that over, look at the prospects of it, and then make a decision, but that will be down the road as well. Believe I answered it,

Allie Lynch – 5News KFSM  13:19:17

Hi Governor,

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:19:19


Allie Lynch – 5News KFSM  13:19:20

This is Allie Lynch with five news. There are several Arkansans going weeks without unemployment paychecks, I was wondering how’s the Department of Workforce Services giving you an update on what may be happening there?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:19:32

I get regular updates. I’ve made it clear that if there’s resources that are needed, we want to be able to provide those resources to process the claims. Clearly from the national news, everyone sees the outbreak of fraud, and the concern about fraud and the processing of those claims. And so that complicates it along with the strict federal guidelines that have come along. So they have assured me that they’re putting resources to it. They’re processing them as fast as they can, following those guidelines, trying to prevent fraud. And we want them to be able to process those as quickly as possible, because we know the legitimate claims really need to be completed. So that’s all I have on that now. If there’s more detailed specifics, we probably need to bring in or have Secretary Preston to speak to it. With and go ahead, one foot one final question here. Go ahead.

Benjamin Hardy – ANNN  13:20:40

Yeah, this is this is Benji Hardy with the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. I wondered if you could talk about your thinking in adding these subgroups of 1-B one at a time rather than opening the door to the rest of 1-B, And when it comes to the 1-C group, which is a you know, an even larger group of people. Any thoughts on which subgroup within 1-C would be added first?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:21:06

And that’s a very good question. And, you know, we could have just put all of 1-B and have added and then it becomes chaos. It would be overwhelming our pharmacies, our hospitals, our vaccine providers, our personnel, and it would not have been nearly as organized as it is now, nothing is ever perfect. But that’s our thinking that you can take a more manageable chunk of statistics of people and put them in and add it to the category, open it to them. And that’s the best way to proceed. And I think it’s proven to be as somewhat successful. You know, as we move on, we may or may not follow that continued pattern, a lot of it will depend simply upon the supply of the vaccines, if we would have had 500,000 vaccines coming in at the beginning of the month, we would open it all up, but we’re not having that we’re having a certain amount every month. And when we get to 1-C it’ll depend upon what the supply is at that point as to how open we make it and whether we do it one step at a time. Colonel Ator, do you have any comment on that? Thank you, sir.

Col. Robert “Gator” Ator  13:22:30

You know, the whole thing is, is that you know, we are controlled by the amount of volume of vaccine is coming into the state. And so, you know, if we open it up too wide, then we we stress out the the ability to actually provide those vaccines, but it slows down the process for the people that we’ve identified as a priority, you know, so we’ve started off with 70 Plus, we’ve moved it to 65 Plus. If we just go 1-B and just open it up, then those people are going to have a tougher time being able to get the vaccine and it just slows down the process. So by keeping it tailored allows us to direct and be very efficient, but also very, very targeted and who we’re trying to get vaccinated so that we’re addressing the needs of equity. Sir.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:23:15

Thank you. We’ve covered a lot of territory today. And with that, thanks You and  have a good afternoon.