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Arkansas governor will let bills bypassing vaccine mandates become law without his signature

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other state officials enter the Governor's Conference Room for a press conference Wednesday.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Wednesday he will let bills SB 739 and HB 1977 become law without his signature. The legislation from the Arkansas General Assembly would allow employers and their employees to bypass federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Hutchinson said debate on the bills had been harmful to the goal of increasing vaccinations in the state.

“The debate and the bills themselves create distrust and additional hesitancy regarding the COVID-19 vaccines,” he said. “These vaccines are safe and have been carefully tested and evaluated.”

Hutchinson said the two bills were designed to push back on President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate.

The governor said even though he doesn’t agree with the Biden administration’s federal vaccination plan, he doesn’t think adding more legislation will help the situation.

“The solution is not to place the employers in a squeeze play between the federal government and state government,” Hutchinson said. “Employers need the freedom to protect their employees and their customers, and the government should not interfere with that freedom through mandates.”

The governor also said the legislature failing to pass an emergency clause factored into his decision to not veto the legislation. He said the 90 days before the bills go into effect allows critical time to assess the potential harm and for court challenges to be considered.

Hutchinson said he will not take executive action against the federal mandates like Texas has done.

“That in my judgment is contrary to the idea that the private sector should not be over regulated,” he said. “I do not support that kind of government interference.”

Hutchinson said the option to opt out of the vaccine through medical or religious reasons are already in place under current law. He also said the federal mandate will allow weekly testing for individuals who don’t want to get vaccinated.

“Arkansans need to get vaccinated, but not through mandates,” the governor said.

Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said children who are old enough should get a vaccine. He stressed that getting vaccinated is the easiest way to avoid quarantines in schools if students are exposed to someone with COVID-19.

During the recent surge of cases, Romero said there was a 94% increase in the number of children hospitalized from COVID-19. The biggest jump in cases was in the 5 to 11 year age group. Romero said if the Food and Drug Administration and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices approves the use of the vaccine, it will be available to kids in that age group next month.

As of Wednesday, there have been 3,001,828 vaccinations in Arkansas, according to the Department of Health. The total number of active cases in the state declined by 104 since Tuesday to 6,702. In the previous 24 hours, there have been 694 new cases reported in the state.

The number of patients hospitalized by COVID-19 has declined by six, while patients on ventilators increased by three. There were 19 additional deaths reported, making the total to 8,166.