Health Officials Update State’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan

First responders and Arkansans over 70 will now be among the first to be immunized.

Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero
Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero gives an update on the pandemic during the governor's weekly briefing Jan. 5, 2021.

Arkansas reported a record number of active COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and patients on ventilators yesterday.

 “These cases will increase. I unfortunately need to say that today because what we are seeing now is what all of us have warned about, that is a surge on top of a surge, and how much of a second surge we have on top of that first surge is unknown,” Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero said. “It’s concerning that today we have over 4,000 cases.”

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 4,107 new cases yesterday, the second-highest caseload for a single day. Hospitalizations climbed to an all-time high of 1,323, prompting Dr. Romero to again urge Arkansans to wear a mask, wash their hands and watch their distance.

“It is up to each citizen to adhere to the three W’s that we’ve talked about,” Sec. Romero said. “This can be slowed down. It cannot be completely stopped at this point, but it is up to each citizen to adhere to this. This is not, this not an exaggeration. The numbers are as they are.”

The newest defense against the virus is the COVID-19 vaccine, which the Arkansas Department of Health is rolling out in phases. The state is currently in Phase 1-A during which the vaccine is being distributed to health care workers as well as residents and staff of long-term care facilities. 

During yesterday’s weekly briefing on the pandemic, officials announced that first responders like firefighters and police officers have also been added to the group. The change is not unusual, Dr. Romero said, because the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices left it to governors to make modifications that were appropriate to each state.

“This is not a deviation. It is a modification to meet the needs of the citizens of Arkansas,” Romero said. 

Officials estimate 180,000 Arkansans are included in Phase 1-A and the goal is to vaccinate this group by the end of January. The state can then move to Phase 1-B, which includes frontline essential workers like teachers and school staff, agricultural workers, childcare workers and grocery store workers. 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced this group would also include Arkansans 70 years of age and older, which was lowered from 75 years old. This group accounts for the most COVID-related deaths in the state, he said. About 81 percent of the state’s 3,836 deaths occurred in the 65 and older age group, according to ADH.

An estimated 400,000 Arkansans are expected to fall into Phase 1-B. The goal is to vaccinate this category in 60 days and in April, progress to Phase 1-C, which includes people 65 to 69 years old, people 16 to 64 years old with high-risk medical conditions, and essential workers who work in food service, public safety and the media. 

“There could be, down the road, adjustments in 1-B or 1-C depending upon the acceptance rate, the opinion of our medical advisors,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “And so we’ll continue to study the response and our needs that are out there, measure that data to make adjustments, but this is what our plans are.”  

ADH Vaccination Schedule

The immunization of Phase 1-A individuals continues across the state at hospitals like the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. They began administering the second and final dose of the vaccine to staff Monday, UAMS chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson said.

“We’ve had no significant adverse events,” Patterson said. “The vaccine is safe as advertised and we are on track to meet or exceed the timetable that has been established by the Department of Health for vaccinating our 1-A team members.”

If someone does have an adverse reaction to the vaccine, they can report it to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. Arkansas has had 22 reports to VAERS since the vaccine has been released in the state, Health Secretary Jose Romero said.

“None of these are serious. These are minor side effects,” he said. 

Arkansas is currently receiving vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. There are at least two other vaccines in the pipeline that may be available in the next two or three months, Romeo said. The state has received 134,425 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and 37,884 of them have been administered, according to the most recent numbers from ADH.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.