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Arkansas governor urges return to 'normal state' of coronavirus restrictions

Gov. Asa Hutchinson looks on as Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero briefs reporters at the state Capitol on Friday.
Michael Hibblen
Gov. Asa Hutchinson looks on as Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero briefs reporters at the state Capitol on Friday.

Arkansas’ governor is calling for a return to a “more normal state” of handling the coronavirus pandemic as Arkansas logs more cases and deaths from COVID-19.

In his weekly media briefing Friday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said coronavirus infections have risen by 1,630 since Tuesday, with 76 Arkansans dying from the disease in the same time period. Active COVID-19 cases fell by 1,470 over the same span.

Hutchinson said he spoke with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky earlier in the day, hinting that she agreed the rest of the country should return to a more pre-pandemic approach to rules on masking and other restrictions.

“It’s very similar to other disease control that you educate the public, the public responds to that, and so it’s about education and vaccinations versus mandates and beating the drum on it every day. I think we’re to the point that everyone knows what to do and they know how to protect themselves,” Hutchinson said.

Walensky has said publicly that the CDC is focusing more on COVID-19 hospitalization numbers as an indicator for potentially lifting public health restrictions. Despite lower case numbers, Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero said the state’s vaccination rate continues to lag, which could cause problems in the future.

“Our vaccination rates are falling significantly. They’re approaching 1,000 a day which is really too low, and we need to continue to vaccinate. Now is the time to prepare for the next surge, which inevitably will come,” Romero said. “We do not have sufficient supply of antivirals or monoclonal antibodies, that is just a matter of production. We just don’t have a supply that’s large enough.”

Romero urged Arkansans who have already been vaccinated to receive a booster shot. 3,865 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines were given out in Arkansas since Tuesday.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health, hospitalizations due to COVID-19 fell by 120 since Tuesday for a total of 545 statewide. Since February of last year, Arkansans not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 make up about 72% of overall cases, 80% of hospitalizations and 80% of deaths.

Romero also responded to questions about a new subvariant of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, saying the World Health Organization has found it is more transmissible but does not cause more severe disease than other strains of the virus.

“At least in this country where BA.2 has already been seen, such as in New York, it’s not taking off and becoming the dominant strain. So it doesn’t seem to be outcompeting what is already there. So we’re watching for it, we’re sequencing it both in our own state lab and externally, and it does not seem to be taking off in the state,” Romero said.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.