Officials urge testing as Arkansans return from Spring Break trips.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has set a goal of administering 1.1 million COVID-19 vaccinations by the end of the month. During his weekly update on the pandemic this afternoon, he announced the state has surpassed the 1 million mark and is well on the way to reaching his target.
“This is good news. We want to continue that progress,” Hutchinson said.
All veterans 18 years of age and older who are enrolled in Veterans Affairs Health Care are part of the newest group to be eligible for vaccination in the state. Dr. Margie Scott, medical center director for the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, said officials began vaccination efforts by following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to look at the highest risk populations first. This included veterans experiencing homelessness, undergoing chemotherapy or residing in VA community living centers.
“Given the supply of vaccine, we’ve been able to increase and increase the eligible population of veterans,” Scott said.
Veterans can receive free vaccines from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock or from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Sunday at a drive-through clinic at Fort Roots in North Little Rock. They can also make an appointment at any VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic. More than 26,000 veterans and staff have been vaccinated in Arkansas.
“Our motto has been COVID-19 does not take a day off and we will not either,” Scott said. “The men and women of the health care system have been there 24/7 and since the day we received the vaccine for COVID-19, we’ve been vaccinating veterans every single day, every weekend and every holiday.”
With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remaining low around the state, the governor is poised to lift a statewide mask mandate Mar. 31. Late last month, Hutchinson announced he would do so if certain criteria was met such as a positivity rate below 10 percent when officials are testing at least 7,500 specimens daily. If testing falls below that threshold, hospitalizations would need to be less than 750 statewide. Currently, 173 Arkansans are battling the virus in the hospital, according to the Arkansas Department of Health’s latest report.
Cities will not be allowed to implement their own mask mandates because Hutchinson said he wants the state to move forward together. Officials are working on guidance for entities like schools and businesses that will be impacted by lifting the mask mandate, and the governor is expected to deliver a formal announcement on the matter next week.
Meanwhile, health officials are concerned about an increase in cases as Arkansans return from Spring Break. Health Secretary Dr. José Romero advised travelers to consider getting tested when they return home and to not ignore symptoms.
“It’s very important that we not allow this virus to resurge in the next three weeks after the Spring Break,” he said.
Although cases have remained low in recent weeks, Romero said Arkansans can’t be complacent and should get the vaccine when it’s their turn.
“Now is the time to push forward because as the governor said, we cannot fully and safely economically open up the state without risk of retriggering this outbreak if we do not have a sufficient number of individuals vaccinated,” he said.
Details about vaccination opportunities in your community are available on the Arkansas Department of Health’s website.