Health officials also encourage flu vaccinations ahead of what could be a difficult season.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences began offering a third dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to qualifying individuals Monday. This follows an announcement last Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that a booster shot should be given at least six months after a second dose to individuals who are 65 years and older, residents in long-term care facilities and people 50 to 64 years old with underlying medical conditions.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his wife, First Lady Susan Hutchinson, received their booster shots during the governor’s weekly press briefing this afternoon. Health Secretary Dr. José Romero also received his shot because of his role as a health care worker.
In the latest guidance from the CDC, officials said in addition to the aforementioned groups, others may receive a booster shot as well including people 18 to 64 years old with an increased risk for COVID-19 exposure because of occupational or institutional settings, and individuals 18 to 49 years old with underlying conditions. More than 9,400 COVID-19 vaccines were administered in Arkansas in the last 24 hours and about a third of those are booster shots, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
“While we’re talking about booster doses today, if you have not received your first dose of the vaccine, please get it,” Hutchinson said. “It is critically important to you and your health, but also to what we’re trying to accomplish as a state in community resistance.”
About 52 percent of the state’s eligible population is fully vaccinated. To provide access to the shot, ADH will host Health Equity Booster Vaccination Clinics Oct. 29 at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, Nov. 17 at the Fort Smith Convention Center, Nov. 19 at Lehr Arena in West Memphis and Nov. 21 at St. Mark’s Baptist Church in Little Rock.
Active cases continue to trend downward in the state with cases decreasing by 647 over the last day. Cases in public schools have also dropped to around 2,100. That’s a decrease of approximately 500 from last Thursday’s report.
To help keep more kids in school, Hutchinson announced new quarantine protocols. Schools can avoid quarantine if 70 percent of staff and students in a school are fully vaccinated. The percentage must be out of the total number of people in school, not just those eligible for a vaccine. Additionally, the 70 percent threshold is subject to modifications as more data becomes available.
Officials are also launching a pilot program where schools can implement rapid testing to keep children in the classroom. Under the new program, unvaccinated students can agree to testing as a way to avoid quarantine. As long as students test negative and wear a mask, they remain in school. If they test positive, they would isolate at home.
There are about 100,000 rapid tests in the state’s inventory so the program will be first come, first served, though Hutchinson hopes to increase that supply so the program can be offered to more interested schools. The state has identified a Northwest Arkansas school that has been asking for ways to minimize quarantines as the first to pilot the initiative, but the governor would not name the exact school.
By providing these alternatives, Romero said officials are trying to promote more in-person learning without sacrificing safety.
“We are opening it up. We’re trying to keep children in school for in-school learning, but at the same time putting in safeguards so that they can do so,” Romero said.
Pfizer submitted data today that analyzes the use of the COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5 to 11. Preliminary data indicates the vaccine is highly effective and safe, Romero said. The CDC will now undergo routine evaluation and the hope is to have a decision in late fall or early winter of this year, he said.
While young children have yet to be approved for the COVID-19 vaccine, they are eligible for the flu vaccine. Arkansans 6 months and older are eligible and it’s important to get a shot this year, which could be a difficult one, Romero said.
“We have concerns that this year may be a very significant year for a number of cases and hospitalizations because we’ve had very mild diseases in the last two years,” he said.
More information about influenza and COVID-19 vaccines is available on the Arkansas Department of Health’s website.