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Continued Winter Weather Delays COVID-19 Testing And Vaccinations In Arkansas

Michael Hibblen

In addition to closing schools, grocery stores and government services due to the winter weather storm, Arkansas services related to the pandemic, such as testing and vaccinations, are also either slowing down or have temporarily stopped.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson called the fewer than 200 new COVID-19 cases announced Tuesday "not very significant" because of a reduction in tests caused by the snow that began hitting the state Sunday night.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has had to clsoe its drive-thru testing sites and its COVID-19 vaccine clinic because of the weather.

Dr. Robert Hopkins, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at UAMS, said in an interview Wednesday that the snow had a "tremendous amount of impact" and caused the delaying of COVID-19 testing and vaccinations for patients.

"We’ve also run into a situation where we’ve had a few doses of vaccine that were getting close to expiring and so we’ve had to reach out to get some patients in to get those vaccines administered so we didn’t waste any doses of this precious vaccine," Hopkins said. 

Because of lowering COVID-19 case rates over the past few weeks, Hopkins said he doesn’t expect to see too much of a bottleneck effect of immediate high demand of vaccines and tests after the winter weather has cleared.

"I suspect there will be some worry from people that were scheduled for vaccines that appointments had to be pushed back and I would want to reassure those folks that we will get with them, we will get them rescheduled," Hopkins said

Though he does expect a minor delay in services due to the snow, Hopkins says he expects UAMS to catch up fairly quickly. In terms of how the snow has impacted other operations at UAMS, Hopkins says the hospital is generally running as it would normally, though getting patients discharged has been more challenging. He says this has led to a small increase in the hospital’s current number of patients.

However, because of the recent expansion of telehealth due to the pandemic, Hopkins says UAMS is able to provide more healthcare outside of its facilities.

"Our ambulatory clinics are continu[ing] to deliver care, but it’s all or mostly done virtually, which is what I would say a benefit of what we’ve learned over this last year, that we can deliver a lot of care by telephone and by telemedicine that we weren’t doing a year ago," Hopkins said.

According to Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, state epidemiologist with the Arkansas Department of Health, the continued snow and ice has "definitely slowed things down," and the state is still waiting on some of the shipment of this week’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

"The vaccine is arriving. Some of it is delayed, and that will have an impact on the ability of locations to give vaccines, but also there are locations where people can get the vaccine if they could get there, but of course travel is really treacherous right now," Dillaha said.  

She does not believe there will be any long-term consequences related to vaccine distribution due to the winter storm and was unaware of any instances where vaccines were expiring before they could be used.

However, Dillaha did caution the public against getting a second dose vaccine earlier than scheduled in anticipation of the weather. The CDC recommends getting the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at least 21 days after the first, and the second dose of the Moderna vaccine at least 28 days later.

Dillaha say getting it earlier than scheduled could compromise its effectiveness, but that getting it up to six weeks later than scheduled would not.

"People shouldn’t be panicky about not getting their second dose soon enough," Dillaha said.

On the subject of testing, Dillaha says there has been a decline in the number of tests performed in the state.

"It may take a little while for it to pop back up into the numbers that we’re accustomed to seeing. Our hope is that the fact that people are staying home will decrease the spread of COVID-19 in this state," Dillaha said.

She says the state will "have to wait and see" after the winter weather ends to see if there is a surge in people requesting tests.  

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