Tuesday, March 30, 2021

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Governor Asa Hutchinson  12:38:22

Good afternoon. And thank you for joining me for today’s weekly COVID-19 update. I’m pleased to be joined by Secretary Jose Romero of the Department of Health, as well as Secretary Johnny Key of the Department of Education. And of course, we have Colonel Rob Ator, who is our program coordinator for a vaccine distribution. We have a couple of announcements today which have been anticipated. But this is an important day to start a new part of our journey through this pandemic. I first want to report that I had a call with the White House Coronavirus Task Force today. And I was advised that nationwide, the states and territories will be receiving an additional 5.4 million doses of vaccine. And so the manufacturing the supply chain continues to increase. For Arkansas, that means that we will receive around 25,000 additional doses of the vaccine this week. And so, and that will be an increased level for the next three weeks as well. Let me first cover the case report for today, which should be our first graph. And our case report continues to look good. If you look at the very middle here, you can see that we had an increase of 178 cases over the last 24 hours. That is down from one week ago. Active cases are down. The deaths are 15. And I suspect although I don’t have that confirmed that some of those would be late reporting, that seems like a large number, as compared to where we were are on our hospitalizations, the testing remains in the low range. And that’s because of a reduced demand. Our hospitalizations are up six, our ventilators are down three. And so you can see that the cases continue to be at a low level. That leads me to the announcement today, which is that if you go to the next one, you can see that on February 26, I came here and I said that we will in the mask mandate in Arkansas, if we meet certain public health criteria. And this just reiterates what that criteria is. And the first one was below 10% on our positivity rate. But we had to have 7500 test during that time, we have dropped below that. And so you look at our hospitalizations, which would be fewer than 750 patients. As you can see, we’re far far below that. And so by the criteria that we set, it’s an appropriate time to lift the statewide mask mandate. And so I’m announcing today that the statewide mask mandate will be lifted, effective today. And I would add that this does not mean that the use of the mask will cease. This mask that I wore in here today, I will continue to have that available that will continue to be a part of my wardrobe as I leave the house and go to work every day. Because there’ll be many times during the day that I will wear the mask, while I’ve been vaccinated, it’s important to be courteous to others and to be mindful that we need to protect ourselves and others. And so common sense should govern. And in addition, we want to look at as you think about where we are with mask in our society and here in Arkansas, please respect the decisions of others in regards to masks. And that is true whether it is a private business or individuals. And I just listed some of the decision points that businesses and others will have to make. Restaurants. I’ve talked to a number of restaurants that will continue with requiring masks within their restaurant for the safety of their employees, for their patrons that come there and they want to have the highest level of safety until more people get vaccinated. And some others will choose something different. They have the flexibility, but there’ll be many that will continue to require a mask while they’re not eating during In the in the restaurant. Hotels, many hotels will continue to require masks. Government buildings, here, as I mentioned early on, that state employees will continue to be required to wear a mask, if you cannot socially distance, that’s for the ability to be able to come back to work in a safe environment in respect of others. Salons and barber shops, stores, event event venues, all of these very well will have a posting, that mask will be required. And so while we’re lifting the statewide mask mandate, it does not mean that it ends in every venue, and people will take – make their own decisions in that regard both business and individuals. Schools, I want to have Secretary key talk about that more. But schools can opt to continue the mask policy within their school. They actually have to make a decision by the local board. And they have to post that decision. And they will be able to have that local option to continue the wearing of mask in their school based upon the decision that the school board makes. The Department of Corrections, I was notified today that the board of the Department of Corrections voted to continue the mask policy within the Department of Corrections that congregate setting, and they viewed that is important until later on where it can be reviewed down the road. Hospitals and health care providers. If you go into hospitals, you’re going to be required to wear a mask. If you go into health care providers, many of them may require a mass to be worn. Those are decisions that are made not based upon a statewide mask mandate because it’s lifted. But it’ll be made based upon the decisions of the local hospital or healthcare provider. And what they believe is best for their patients and for the health of their hospital or clinic. And so 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. And if you don’t want to comply with that, then you have options to go somewhere else. That’s what it means whenever you lift a mandate, and individuals can make responsible decisions as well as businesses, we just need to honor those decisions.  And then let’s go on from there to the second announcement, which is that effective today, Arkansans aged 16 and above are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. This opens up all the vaccine eligibility categories to every adult above 16. There’s the vaccine line, you’ve been waiting for this opportunity, you can call it, they can direct you to a local clinic or local pharmacy where you can get the vaccine. And so this will obviously increase the demand for the vaccines. It might take some time to get the appointment that you want. But we’re 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 to the extent that we can. President Biden urge that within by April 19, he wanted to see 90% of Americans that are eligible adults to be eligible for the vaccine. Well obviously, we’re meeting that goal today because as of today, it is full open if you’re above 16 to get the vaccine. 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 that we give every Arkansan that opportunity.  Let’s go to the vaccine report. And this is a little different because I wanted to take the CDC data and so this is Center for Disease Control data that shows the total doses that have been distributed to Arkansas at roughly 1.6 million doses. That comes through our state program that comes through our federal partners and our federal pharmacy program as well as through our federal institutions like the Department of Veterans Affairs that we had here last week. The total doses administered through all of these different partners is 1.1 million doses. And that gives us a percent given out according to the CDC of 69.4%. It breaks down to individuals that have received at least one dose, and those that have received two doses. Obviously, some of those are fully immunized with one dose. And so, we will be reporting from time to time on the CDC numbers. Today, it will be posted on the Department of Health website, the specific numbers that apply with the state programs, so it’ll look a little bit different. Those are the numbers though, according to the CDC, of those that are being vaccinated in Arkansas.  And then let’s go to just the graphs, and I wanted everybody to see where we are in terms of our pattern and trend lines. And here’s a seven day rolling average of confirmed and probable cases, you see the right trend line, the one we want. And then next you see the number of currently hospitalized, it’s flattened out at below 200. We hope that that will continue to decrease. And then you’ll see the number of active cases that is as low as it’s been since what last summer, I guess it was last May or June, 1717 active cases. The seven day rolling average of percent positivity is below 5%. That’s great news. And then believe that is all of those. And so I’ll leave with this final message. And that is that with these good numbers, people have a tendency to say we’re out of the woods, there’s not a problem anymore, COVID-19 is not in my community. Well, Dr. Romero reminded me today that we have increased the number of cases in terms of the variants that have been found in Arkansas. We see many surrounding states that have gone up in cases. And we see a national trend that concerns the CDC, and Dr. Walenski of the CDC. And so we want to make sure we stay in the right direction by taking these steps, but continuing to be careful in how we conduct ourselves respectful of others, wearing a mask when needed. And then secondly, making sure you get the vaccine, get the vaccine, don’t delay, get the vaccine. And with that, let me invite Secretary Johnny key to come first followed by, will let Dr. Romero bat clean up today.

Secretary Johnny Key (ADE)  12:51:34

Thank you, Governor. In the state of Arkansas, we are having a successful school year. We have currently approximately 80% of our students that are receiving on site instruction. And one of the reasons for our success has been the layered approach that we have taken to following the guidelines and implementing the protections against the spread of the covid 19. The masking has been a critical component of that. With the end of the mask mandate, and, Jeremy if you could go to the next slides please, we are allowing local districts to make the decisions on whether they want to continue having a masked mandate at the local level. They do have to take the boards of the local school districts have to take some action either to continue to modify or to eliminate the mask wearing policies. Why is this important? Well mask wearing as we’ll see in a second may be taken into consideration when identifying close contacts and identifying persons that may need quarantine. When reviewing local policies, the boards need to also consider the all of the areas of the school. They need to consider what happens on the school bus they need to consider what happens in cafeterias, in the hallways, in the areas of student activities. Okay, if you can make Next slide please. This is important as well because districts have to publish their plan for continued safe operation on their website as a requirement of the Federal American Rescue Plan. This is – should be developed in conjunction with the Ready For Learning committees in probably every case. This is simple Going to be a modification of your Ready For Learning plan that you adopted and published back in the fall. Must be posted by April 15 of this year. And there is a requirement that they have to receive public comment. This public comment will then be used to make whatever modifications they may need make going into the summer and the fall. Now, as it relates to the next slide as it relates to identifying close contacts, if a school keeps a mandatory mask policy, and both parties are wearing masks appropriately, the infected person and the close contact person, if they are wearing masks properly, then the close contact would not be required quarantine. If at least one of those individuals were not wearing their mask properly, then the traditional quarantine guidelines apply, as issued by the Health Department. If a district chooses not to have a mask policy, then the traditional quarantine guidelines will apply. So, again, it is left up to the local districts to make these decisions. They must take some affirmative action by their board and publish that to their to their patrons. We’ll be glad to follow up any questions after Dr. Romero’s comments.

Dr. Jose Romero  12:54:54

Thank you and good afternoon. First of all, let me address a question that the governor brought up about number of deaths, he is he was concerned about the as always any death in in in Arkansan. We did have 15 deaths, seven of those he is correct. Seven of those are delayed reports. So they occurred outside of this cycle. And this is common for us to get these, but he is correct seven. So regarding vaccines, we are pushing forward, we are using the CDC numbers as you saw today, which give a reflection of the total pool of vaccines that are being given to us and that are being administered. And I can, you can see that we are making headway in administering the vaccines. We will be modifying as we go forward and we get more vaccine, how we’re going to be delivering these, there will be as has been in the past. Significant mass events or large events for vaccination, and possibly more of these, which the government will announce in the near future. I want to make it very clear that it’s important for those individuals that are not receiving the Janssen vaccine to receive the second dose the second dose of vaccine. So recent publication by the CDC showed that we are about 5% of our patients are at risk for not receiving the second dose. And our newer numbers based on what Dr. Porter and [Dr.] Cima have pulled we may be increasing. So again, you need that second dose to become fully immunized if you’re receiving the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine, you are not fully immunized and not fully protected until you have that. And lastly, the issue of masking. So it is a fact now that cases are increasing nationally and there have been increasing numbers of hospitalizations. We are not isolated. What happens around us eventually reaches us. And just like we didn’t see our first case for many weeks into the pandemic, these growing numbers of cases outside of the state will eventually get here if we are not careful. The removal of the mask mandate, as the governor has clearly stated, is not a statement that we do not need to mask you need to continue to mask when you leave your home. You need to continue to avoid avoid large gatherings, you need to follow the recommendations as per the CDC. Only that way will you be able to keep the numbers low as we’re seeing them now. The epidemiologist, myself and the governor are discussing the metrics that we will use to follow this forward and so that we can react as quickly as possible if the number of cases begin to increase within the state. So again, please wear your mask, I will continue to wear my mask whenever I leave the house. And whenever I’m with someone else. It is important that we do so in order to keep this these numbers low. So thank you very much. I’ll turn it back over to the governor.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  12:57:54


Alex Burch – KATV  12:57:56

President Biden has asked states to reinstate their mask mandates for those states who’ve gotten rid of them and the CDC CDC director says she’s afraid of an imminent fourth wave. Does that not give you pause? Why aren’t you taking their guidance?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  12:58:10

Because we made our decision in Arkansas based upon the criteria that we set that this is a goal that we had we achieve that and so we stuck with the principle that was outlined and the lifting of the mass mandate. People in Arkansas know what needs to be done. And we expect them to do the right thing with their neighbors and with their businesses. And I think that’s what Arkansas is about. In terms of the President’s admonition, I was told the White House today that the President’s continued serious regard for a virus is important, and that we will continue to reflect that in Arkansas yesterday, the legislature continued the emergency that indicates we know it’s serious, and that it sends a signal to everyone that while the mask mandate is lifted, let’s still be careful and realize that the virus is still here.

Andy Davis – ADG  12:59:11

cities that want to have their own math ordinances. At one time they were allowed to adopt model ordinances. That is something that is possible now or

Governor Asa Hutchinson  12:59:23

yesterday is we’ve lifted the statewide mask mandate, we have not restricted any municipality from taking separate actions if they deem that that’s appropriate. So this is a little bit different. And as part of lifting restrictions, when we lift restrictions on our citizens, we actually are lifting restrictions from a statewide perspective on state and local or local government as well

Andy Davis – ADG  12:59:49

so the cities can have any type of ordinance they want requiring math?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  12:59:54

Well, as you know, they the sure they can adopt an ordinance. I don’t know if I’d want to say they can do anything they want to do. But there’s a couple of we actually provided to the Municipal League a model ordinance on on mask if some time ago, during the early days of the pandemic when they were looking at it, and that was prior to us adopting a statewide policy on it. And so they can consider it I would be doubtful that very many cities will. But that is their right under our Constitution. And under the fact that we don’t have a statewide mandate in place anymore, does leave them that discretion.

Alex Burch – KATV  13:00:42

That we’ve been fighting more variants in the state. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? How many cases what kinds and have we found an origin for them?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:00:51

The Of course, let Dr. Romero comment in a moment. But there’s two variants that are present in Arkansas, and I’ll give the common name form which is the UK variant and the California variant. We do not test here in Arkansas for the variant, we send that to the CDC that has the capacity to do that. And so we’re based upon a sampling, I believe the number was 17 that we’ve identified cases of the variant in Arkansas.

Dr. Jose Romero  13:01:29

So as the governor said, we have identified the the UK variant here, the B 117 variant that that variant has increased over the last few weeks. This is from the start of the month. We have had seven of those isolated with the largest number in the last week. In addition to that, we are see is seeing variants there are two variants from California, the B one four to seven and B 414 to nine, these variants have increased transmissibility, not the same lethality as the UK variant, the UK variant has a higher lithology lethality and a higher transmissibility. And we are seeing 10 of those and again increasing in the last two weeks. So they are here. They are beginning to form part of our of the normal repertoire of viruses in the state. But we’re keeping a close eye on this and we will continue to sequence of viruses and increase the number of sequence viruses in the future.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:02:31

Let me go remotely is Andrew DeMillo on the line.

Andrew DeMillo – AP  13:02:37

I gov. Thank you had one su COVID issue and non COVID issue of the best mandate, want to see what changed your mind on allowing local governments to have their own requirements. Getting your comments last week and also related to the mandate. Are you leaving open the possibility of seeking reinstatement of the masked mandate if there is a surge? And if so kind of what are the numbers you you’d follow on that? Non COVID issue wanted to ask you about Hb 1570 the legislation on gender confirming treatments for minors. Want to see where you stand on that at this point and The concerns that have been brought up by pediatricians and social workers and parents of trans youth, uh, how much? How much is that going to weigh in your, in your thinking on this?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:03:34

Well, Andrew, that’s a lot. First, in terms of, you know, why am I allowing local jurisdictions to make their own decision in reference to the mask, and that is because I’m avoiding executive orders. You know, we’re lifting the mask mandate. And if I wanted to restrict local governments, I would have to enter an executive order to do that. And so I think it’s much more wise to try to move away from those mandates and those restrictions, just like wind lifted all the business restrictions, I’m lifting the restrictions in reference to local government as well. And so that’s the rationale of it. Obviously. Like I said, I don’t expect very many will adopt a umask mandate, I think they like the direction we’re going in terms of whether that would ever be reinstated. Anything is possible in the future. But I don’t see that happening. Because we’re getting the vaccine out. We’re making progress on that every day. And the whole goal of the vaccination and the herd immunity is that we can lead a more normal life. And so that’s the incentive. That’s the goal. And so I don’t see us going back from that we just need to get more vaccines out. In terms of the SAFE Act, which is a bill on that you mentioned, I’m continuing to listen to study that. That’s my habit, it. I want to know as much as I can. So I can answer questions in regard to that. So I have some time before I have to make a decision whether to sign it or take other action on it. I’ve got a number of appointments in which I’m listening to people and meeting with them to learn more about it and hear their views. So I will be doing that in the next couple of days. Next question is are a little rock broadcast media that wants to ask a question?

Mercedes Mackay – KTHV  13:05:41

Hi, yes, this is Mercedes McKay with channel loving this questions more so directed to Dr. Romero. But recently, the CDC director said that she feels a feeling of impending doom. Curious if Dr. Romero is feeling that same type of impending doom and nervous about that fourth wave.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:06:02

Dr. Romero.

Dr. Jose Romero  13:06:09

I am concerned that there is an upswing in cases nationally, both in in cases and in hospitalizations. I think that we are at this point in the state low. We had set a benchmark, we’ve met that benchmark and we’re moving forward. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to turn my radar off for cases as I said before, we are developing metrics for the governor so that we can advise regarding how serious if we starting to see cases here. So I am always a little nervous about everything. That is the nature of who I am. But I’m going to watch the situation very closely here in the state

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:06:54

is Neil Gladner on the line?

Neal Gladner  13:06:56

Yes, Governor. Good afternoon. And thank you kind of a legal question yesterday when Legislative Council approved those five executive measures continuing the liability waiver is the one I’m asking you about, as I recall when it was originally imposed, it was based on businesses maintaining the directives from the Department of Health now that those are gone. How will the liability waiver work? And what are businesses have to do to make sure they’re covered? Thank you.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:07:23

Thank you, Neal. And I would have to review the directive more carefully. And of course, the directive is been changed into a guideline. And the liability immunity does make reference to a presumption that there’s not a causation between Coronavirus case and the actions of the business if the guidelines are followed, and so there is an incentive to follow guidelines. That’s my recollection of it, we’ll be happy to get you more information on that. So doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be business liability immunity without following the guidelines, it just that it would be easier for them to make the case that they should be immune and not have any liability. If those guidelines are followed. Next question from anyone.

Briseida Holguin – WMC 5  13:08:26

Jacqueline Froelich with public radio KUAF in Fayetteville, Gov. Hi. Hi, I’m regarding the SAFE Act, the medical refusal Act, the transgender girls and women and sport ban, what message do you have for trans children, teens and young people across Arkansas, who are watching what’s happening in the General Assembly and seeing you sign, so far, several of these measures?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:08:55

Well, they should know that we want them to have the counseling we want them to have the treatment that they need. And if you look at the Medical conscience act, it doesn’t prohibit the treatment, it just allows someone to that it’s not an emergency situation, or it’s, it’s, it’s a procedure that they do not want to do for conscience reasons allows them to decline service in that area. And so this is something that I don’t expect, would be exercised very often. And it’ll be easy for transgender individuals to have the health care that they need, which is what we want is just gives a freedom of choice and service for those that might have a concern, conflict because of conscience or religious reasons. It’s very important that it does not allow anyone to discriminate based upon a class of persons. That would be against federal law, you can’t do it based upon race, or you can’t do it based upon sex or gender, or national origin. You cannot say we’re not we’re going to refuse service on those bases, you can’t do that. And whenever you have those protections in place, that should give everyone assurance that they’re going to have the medical care that they need, and that they’re certainly entitled to. The other one is the girls in sports act. And here again, that I think thought was worded very carefully. It just simply says that if you’re a biological male, you cannot compete against girls in sports. And that made sense to me, you and so I signed that into law, I think that should not be a signal to anyone that they’re going to be a pressed in life. They’re going to have the care that they need. And we hope that they will have the opportunities for recreation that they need as well. But that’s a reasonable restriction for competitive sports and girls. Next question.

Brett Rains – 40/29  13:11:20

Good afternoon. It’s Brett rain from 4029. News. I know you recently said you’re hoping for 1 million additional vaccines over the next 60 days. Is that this way and in your decision to open up vaccinations to everyone 16 and older? And then second part, Dr. Jose Romero is he on board with the lifting the mandate? i know he says he’s always cautious. But give us a little insight into that discussion.

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:11:48

On the first part of your question, absolutely. You know, meeting the goal of getting our Kansans vaccinated, specifically the 1 billion doses in 60 days, we have to keep the demand up, we have to make sure that there’s both a supply but that everybody is not restricted from getting the vaccine. So I was pleased today that we had well over 20,000 vaccines administered, we want to be able to keep up that pace, it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to have clinics, we’re going to have to make sure it gets out as President Biden set a goal to have everybody within five miles of their house, in real estate that might be a little bit challenging, and some people live five miles out in the country. But we’re gonna make sure that we get it into every community. You know, in terms of the latter part of the conversation on mass. You know, Dr. Romero, he’s an epidemiologist, he’s expressed to me concern, obviously, and that, you know, the more you can do for protecting each other, the better. But he understands the, the broader picture that I have to have for the state of Arkansas. And so I asked him, we’ll set me a criteria as to if we don’t do it immediately, but 30 days from now, where do we where should we be to feel more comfortable? And so that’s the conversation. We had was you know i asked for the criteria he provided it to me and we agreed upon that and we’ve stuck with it he’s been a good partner through this i like people that always don’t say yes they express themselves and then we make a decision and go on dr merrill okay is there another alex’s did you have another question

Alex Burch – KATV  13:13:49

Yes my question was for Secretary Key should a parent disagree with the school board’s decision regarding the mask mandates could they have the option to withdraw their students switch them to virtual depending on their situation

Secretary Johnny Key (ADE)  13:14:06

well it certainly depends on the situation a lot of districts have virtual options and i would just encourage parents to to be a part of this conversation as a matter of fact in the ready for learning planning we very much encouraged parents to be engaged in that along with teachers and those districts that have virtual options that could be an opportunity for that parent to say well for the rest of the school year i would rather do this that’s gonna be that’s gonna vary on a district by district basis

Alex Burch – KATV  13:14:40

they will allow for that flexibility?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:14:47

is there a final question remotely

Samantha Boyd – KNWA  13:14:54

i’m curious about this i just want to follow up on something you said about the mask mandate i know you say you don’t foresee us ending that or ending it being lifted if we surpass a 10% positivity rate would you consider going back on that?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:15:09

i’m not going to speculate as to what we might do down the road as i said in terms of the mass mandate is lifted if we ever consider reinstating that we will look at the data or consult with dr romero but it would be my hope and and belief that with vaccines getting out that we’re going to be able to keep the pressure on the virus and keep it from spreading that’s the goal if our population is not getting vaccinated and we see an increase in the virus then sure we’re gonna have to take a look at what measures we need to take and so the future is in our hands about getting vaccinated and that’s what we want people to do and then i saw her one other question let’s make that the final one one other question

Briseida Holguin – WMC 5  13:16:03

thank you it’s Briseida Holguin with WMC Action News 5 out of Memphis with a low demand for the vaccine, and you’ll have to excuse me i’m in a car and it’s pouring outside but with low demand for the vaccine with new strains in the state do you think lifting the mask mandate is the best thing to do at this moment?

Governor Asa Hutchinson  13:16:25

yes i do because people understand the facts they understand what is required to stop the spread of the virus they understand it but they’ve also we’ve got vaccines that are increasing we have an understanding of it there’s a weariness there is a weariness from government restrictions and mandates and so the people would like to be able to make their good choices and they can make a choice as to whether they want to go into a business that doesn’t have mask or they can go into one that has you know a mass policy so they can make decisions and they know what’s involved in that and they know the group that they’re around whether they’ve been vaccinated they may know that if it’s clear to if it’s a family group or if it’s a get together they might bring vaccine cards and so everybody knows that you’ve been vaccinated so let’s don’t have a mandate there we can use common sense so i think that’s the right direction for us and that’s what we’ve done y’all been great today thank you for your attention and the questions