On Thursday evening, a day Arkansas saw its highest number of new coronavirus cases since February, Gov. Asa Hutchinson held the first of several “Community COVID Conversations” that are being planned around the state. The meetings are intended to combat a rising number of cases by allaying fears about getting vaccinated.
The Department of Health reported on Thursday 1,210 new cases of people testing positive for the virus, while hospitalizations grew by 49 and there were 11 deaths.
Speaking at a packed community center in Cabot, Hutchinson expressed his concerns about the recent spike in cases by sharing some statistics with the crowd. He noted that on June 7, the number of new cases was just 62. One month later on July 7, the number of new cases had spiked to more than 1,000.
“We can’t address COVID at this point from the top down. We’ve got to really engage and listen to our communities and build confidence and build acceptance in what we need to do,” Hutchinson said.
He blamed the increase on the new delta variant and the state’s low vaccination rate. As of Thursday, the Department of Health said the variant was responsible for more than 50% of the new cases. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, more than 99% of recent American COVID deaths have been unvaccinated people.
“The delta variant is more contagious and more easily transmittable than the original. And people who catch the delta variant are twice as likely to go into the hospital than those who caught the original,” Hutchinson said. “So you can see the impact of that one variant that has a more virulent strain.”
The governor originally set a goal of having at least 50% of Arkansans vaccinated by the end of July. As of July 7, just 39% of residents had been fully vaccinated. In Lonoke County, where Hutchinson spoke, 36% percent of residents had been fully vaccinated. But he said 68% of Cabot residents 18-years and older had gotten at least their first dose of a vaccine.
Hutchinson said he hopes to visit many small communities during his series of meetings.
“It’s really the rural areas of our state that have struggled in terms of vaccines,” said Hutchinson.
He gave some more statistics and reminded the audience that there are no mandates on anything in the state regarding the virus. The governor said the public has been educated for more than 18 months now and that everyone has the right to make their own decisions regarding their behaviors. However, he said it was up to the community to ensure everyone stays healthy.
“There’s not a whole lot the state can do. It’s all about what the community can do in realizing how important it is in the community,” Hutchinson said. “So I’m here tonight to listen and to hopefully learn something about the community as to what more we can do.”
He then allowed members of the audience to ask questions. The first came from Cabot High School Principal Henry Hawkins who began by thanking the governor for everything that was done to help schools throughout the state attempt to maintain normalcy during the pandemic.
“We’ve got to make sure that our patrons are educated to know that this vaccine is so effective. I think it has far exceeded expectations and I think that the bottom line is that we’ve got to encourage our people, our patrons, to get out there and get that done because that’s going to help us,” Hawkins said.
In addition to the other elected officials and educators, several medical professionals there asked for assistance in educating their patients on the benefits of the vaccine and to help dispel the myths that accompany them. One was Nurse Practitioner Kim Griffith, who said she spends a large part of her day combating the incorrect information that her patients have seen or read about the vaccine.
“What do you have available, or can you make some things available to help me in my job to let people know that this is not a dangerous thing,” asked Griffith.
While Hutchinson initially directed Griffith to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for information and assistance, he later said the state does not have enough printed material about the vaccines.
The governor referred many questions to Dr. Jose Romero, the state’s secretary of health. He voiced concerns that the average age for acquiring the virus has changed because of the variant.
“It is the young, healthy individual that is now winding up in the hospital or dying from the disease,” Romero said. “We have a new bandit in town. We have a new virus. This virus is very different from the original parental strain.”
The governor took questions from the crowd until the session wound down, answering as many questions as possible and promising to find out the answers to the questions he couldn’t. Hutchinson also brought along Dr. William Greenfield, Arkansas section chair for the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology, to help dispel any infertility fears that anyone may have regarding the vaccines. Dr. Greenfield reassured the crowd that the vaccine has no bearing on fertility in either men or women.
“What we have seen, however, is the impact of COVID on pregnant women. While their absolute risk of contracting COVID-19 is low, of those women who contract it, they are at an increased risk of more severe disease compared to their non-pregnant counterparts,” said Greenfield.
The community meeting wrapped up after Hutchinson previewed a new advertisement for the audience that he hopes will help to encourage more Arkansans to get vaccinated by the end of July.
UPCOMING COMMUNITY COVID CONVERSATIONS
The governor's office says more of the town hall meetings are planned throughout the state in upcoming weeks. A schedule released Friday listed the next Community COVID Conversations:
Monday, July 12, 6 p.m.
Batesville Community Center
1420 20th Street
Tuesday, July 13, 12 p.m.
Blytheville High School
600 N. 10th Street
Tuesday, July 13, 6 p.m.
Forrest City Civic Center
1335 N. Washington Street
Forrest City, Ark.
Thursday, July 15, 6 p.m.
Texarkana Arkansas Convention Center
5200 Convention Plaza Drive