State officials are implementing new initiatives to vaccinate vulnerable populations.
The state of Arkansas set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and patients on ventilators today, breaking all-time highs set just one day prior. As of this afternoon, 1,435 Arkansans were hospitalized because of the virus, 294 are on ventilators. The Arkansas Department of Health also reported 2,620 new cases and 24 additional deaths.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson again emphasized the importance of vaccination in combating the surge in cases during his weekly press briefing this afternoon. The vaccination rate among traditional Medicaid beneficiaries is very low, so Hutchinson announced an effort to encourage vaccinations among this group. Of the 627,000 Arkansans on traditional Medicaid age 12 and older, only 27,000 have been vaccinated.
“That is extremely, extremely low in a very vulnerable and at-risk population, and it’s a challenge for us,” Hutchinson said. “We have to do better for this vulnerable population.”
As an incentive for physicians to engage with Medicaid recipients about the vaccine, the governor announced Arkansas is increasing the COVID-19 administration reimbursement rate from $40 to $100. This rate will be applied to any of the three COVID-19 vaccines administered to patients.
“I am asking all providers who serve traditional Medicaid clients to reach out to those who are not vaccinated, offer counseling to them, answer any questions about the benefits of the vaccination, give them the medical information that they need,” Hutchinson said.
To encourage students returning to the classroom to get vaccinated, the Arkansas Department of Education is launching a new initiative called “Stop the Hesitation, Get the Vaccination.” ADE officials will work to increase vaccination clinics at schools and use marketing tools to help encourage vaccination of children 12 years of age and older.
Additionally, Hutchinson said the state is looking at acquiring a supply of high efficiency filtration masks that can be made available to schools. ADE has about $500,000 set aside for personal protective equipment that officials are considering using to fund this effort. The state has an ample supply of masks suitable for older children that can be made available immediately, but finding smaller sizes for younger children will be challenging because the supply chain for those is very limited.
“We want to help the school districts have an adequate supply of that, particularly the high efficiency filtration masks, and we hope that that will be available before school or soon thereafter,” Hutchinson said.
School districts around the state are making decisions this week as to whether they will require students to wear masks in the classroom this fall. Approved earlier this year by the legislature, Act 1002 prohibits state agencies from issuing mandatory face covering requirements. Although lawmakers failed to amend the law for public schools during a special session last week, a Pulaski County Circuit Judge issued a preliminary injunction Friday allowing school districts to make decisions about mask mandates at the local level.
Of Arkansans 12 to 18 years old, 36 percent have received a single dose of the vaccine and 20 percent are fully immunized. It’s important to note these children are at risk, Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said. There have been significant increases in the number of individuals within that age group and younger hospitalized with COVID-19. Vaccinations are only approved for children 12 and older, so Romero said it’s important for younger children to be encouraged to wear masks in public, specifically when they go to school.
“We’ve already had an outbreak in one school district that continues to increase in number and we can foresee that happening as we move forward into the school year without proper masking,” he said.
If you have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Hutchinson and health officials will host another Community COVID Conversation at 6 p.m. Thursday in Camden at Southern Arkansas University Tech’s Student Center Grand Hall.
More information about vaccinations in Arkansas is available on the Department of Health’s website.