Arkansas hospitals continue struggling to handle a growing number of people needing treatment for COVID-19. On Tuesday the state reported 27 additional hospitalizations, pushing the total to another record high of 1,323.
There were also 36 more deaths for a total of 3,836. The Department of Health reported 27 of the deaths were confirmed to be from the disease caused by the coronavirus, while nine were probable deaths. There were also 4,107 new cases of people testing positive for the virus, while the number of active cases rose by 1,351 to a new record of 24,408.
Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said during the governor’s weekly press briefing on the pandemic that hospitals are dealing with the rising number of patients as best they can.
“We are stressed, we are strained, but the system is not breaking at the present moment,” he said. “We do have finite resources, and so we do need to be careful as to how we manage those resources and we need to continue to do everything that we can as a state to mitigate the consequences of COVID-19 while we wait for the effects of the vaccine.”
But Patterson acknowledged many people have safety concerns about the two vaccines available. He said a recent survey of about 4,000 UAMS employees found 30% were reluctant to get vaccinated. If health care workers have hesitations, Patterson said he expects there is an even greater percentage among the general population.
Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero sought to offer assurances about the safety of the vaccines, saying that of the thousands of Arkansans who have been vaccinated, less than two dozen had any kind of complications, and those were all mild.
“It’s really imperative on us to get the message out, not just to our health care community, but to the entire community here in the state of Arkansas that these are safe vaccines,” Romero said. “We can’t rely on information that is coming from untrustworthy sources and that we need to provide transparent scientific information about the benefits of these vaccines, which far exceed any adverse consequences.”
An estimated 180,000 Arkansans are in the first group currently getting vaccinated, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson said that phase should be completed by the end of January.
He said administering the vaccines to frontline health care workers in hospitals has gone well, but providing the shots to residents and staff of long-term care facilities has been more of a logistical challenge because of the need for consent paperwork, training, and working with pharmacies to provide the vaccines.
“I think it was too slow of a process,” Hutchinson said. “I know they’re working very, very hard to make sure that we can meet the goals. More importantly, they want to make sure that they can get the vaccines into the right people very quickly.”
The governor said plans are being devised by the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management for subsequent groups of people to get vaccinated. That will be completed by Jan. 15, Hutchinson said, and posted online.
The next phase is to begin February 1, with 400,000 people, including police, firefighters, teachers and agriculture workers. The third phase will involve people with high-risk medical conditions or who work in transportation, public safety and the media.
John Vinson, CEO of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said 212 pharmacies in all but two of Arkansas’ 75 counties have received vaccines. He noted that 212 degrees Fahrenheit is also the boiling point of water.
“We’re about to bring the heat to this virus. I’m sick of it. I have family members that have been affected by this, and friends. We’re ready, now that we have the vaccine, to fight back and save lives and our pharmacists are ready for this moment,” Vinson said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 134,425 doses of the vaccines have been received by the state, with Hutchinson saying 37,000 have been administered. He emphasized the need for continued communication with federal authorities and said he would likely be talking Wednesday with the transition team for President-elect Joe Biden.
Romero said given the timing after the holidays and typical patterns of more cases later each week, he expects the situation to get worse in the coming days.
“What we are seeing now is what I and all of us have warned about, and that is a surge on top of a surge,” Romero said. “How much of a second surge that we have on top of that first surge is unknown.”