Arkansas continues leading the nation per capita in new coronavirus cases, blamed on the spread of the more infectious delta variant and the state’s vaccination rate, which is among the lowest in the country.
The Department of Health reported 1,342 new cases Friday, with the number of active cases growing by 671 to 9,750, a figure not seen in the state since Feb. 15. Eleven deaths were reported, with Arkansas on track to, in the coming days, surpass a death toll of 6,000 since the first deaths were announced in March 2020.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha said in an interview on Arkansas PBS broadcast Friday night that health officials are “trying to communicate the urgency of the situation” and that people who are not vaccinated need to do it as quickly as possible since it takes five to six weeks to develop full immunity.
Just 35% of the population in Arkansas is vaccinated, according to the department. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as of Saturday, the national rate of fully vaccinated people is 48.5%.
“This variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is highly infectious. It causes more severe disease. It’s more quick to put people in the hospital and at younger ages,” Dillaha said. “For these reasons, we are experiencing a large number of new cases because the younger people are not the ones who've been getting the vaccine. It's been the older adults who are now protected.”
Over the last week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson held a series of town hall meetings around the state in Cabot, Batesville, Blytheville, Forrest City and Texarkana. He said he has been focusing on smaller communities with lower vaccination rates.
Participating in these meetings have been local leaders, including church pastors, with the governor specifically calling on them to encourage their congregations to get vaccinated.
Dr. Dillaha praised Hutchinson for going into areas where people are less likely to be vaccinated. She said that for many people the decision on whether to get a vaccine largely depends on their social network.
“If there are a lot of people in a rural area that are not vaccinated, it's harder for individuals to go against what their community is doing. It takes a lot of courage for people to do that. And so, by addressing this at a community level in the smaller rural areas, that enables the community to get vaccinated together,” Dillaha said.
“I think that's an important strategy because we are influenced by who we associate with and those are the people we trust. So, if we can get good information into those communities so that they can make informed decisions, I think more people will get vaccinated,” Dillaha said.
At his most recent town hall meeting Thursday night in Texarkana, Hutchinson shared figures showing the increasing number of cases, along with demographics of who is getting sick.
“What we’re seeing in our hospitals is that the average age of our hospitalized COVID patients has gone from over 65 down to the age 54. Why is that? Because the delta variant hits you hard, but also because that’s the age group who are not getting vaccinated at the rate we want,” Hutchinson said.
But the governor faced skepticism at the meeting from some like Harvey Woods.
“The government of the United States is pushing this to get everyone vaccinated, but they’re not allowing for data to be collected as to the effectiveness. There are a lot of questions about whether it’s going to cause harm,” Woods said.
State Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero, who was with Hutchinson at the meeting, countered that all data on the safety of the vaccines is available online and reviewed on a monthly basis. He said adverse side effects from the vaccines are very rare.
“I can guarantee you that we have the safest vaccine system in the world,” Romero said. “Safety has been paramount in the development of these vaccines throughout the testing of these vaccines and even after the vaccines have been put into circulation.”
In Texarkana, the governor said the percentage of those who are fully vaccinated there is 17%, while Miller County is at 9.5%.
On Twitter Saturday afternoon, Hutchinson said the state administered 8,869 vaccines on Friday, which exceeded previous weeks. Three-fourths of those were first doses, he said.
A schedule for Hutchinson released by his office Friday didn’t show any additional “Community COVID Conversations” planned by the governor for the coming week. He also does not have a weekly press briefing scheduled, as he has been typically holding on Tuesdays.
Reporting by Sabrina McCormick of Texarkana NPR station KTXK contributed to this story.