Governor Discusses Increase in Arkansas COVID-19 Deaths, Prison Population

Hutchinson voiced his concern about vaccination rates and his support for expanding prison capacity.

Close up of doctor holding hand and comforting Black patient in hospital bed

Arkansas has averaged roughly 31 COVID-19 deaths a day so far this February. Ten days into the month and the Arkansas Department of Health has reported a total of 309 deaths. As the state’s death toll nears 10,000, African Americans account for more than 14 percent of those deaths, while Hispanics make up 3.6 percent.

The high levels of virus-related deaths are expected to continue even as hospitalizations are on the decline. There are also nearly 29,500 fewer active cases in Arkansas than a week ago. While these numbers signal an easing of the Omicron surge, Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed his concern during a press conference today that these declines will negatively impact the state’s vaccination efforts. 

“In the last week, only 17,000 doses have been given; this is an average of 2,400 doses per day,” Hutchinson said. “We hope that that will increase, but with our numbers going down, that’s going to be a challenge to get people’s attention and realize the importance of that.”

Although cases are decreasing, the numbers are still very high and the state is not where it needs to be, state epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha said. Because of that, she encouraged Arkansans to become fully vaccinated because it can reduce the risk of hospitalization or death. 

“We know that a little over 2 percent of the people that have been reported to die since the beginning of December have been fully vaccinated and boosted,” she said. “So we know that these vaccines can greatly protect people, so I encourage people to do so.”    

COVID-19 vaccine clinics are continuing to be offered around the state. The city of Little Rock, for example, has partnered with CHI St. Vincent to host a clinic from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Southwest Community Center. Vaccine recipients will receive a $50 Visa Rewards card. ADH has a list of additional Arkansas vaccine clinics on its website.

During his weekly update, Hutchinson also expressed support for a plan to use part of the state’s surplus to expand prison capacity in Arkansas, which he said is needed to keep up with the state’s natural population growth, as well as provide a more permanent solution for overcrowded county jails. The proposed plan would add 498 prison beds to the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ North Central Unit in Calico Rock.

Hutchinson estimated the project will cost $60 to $100 million, but officials will have a more accurate cost estimate once an architectural design is created. Hutchinson is bringing this proposal forward now because state legislators begin a fiscal session Monday and lawmakers will have to approve the funding. Secretary of Corrections Solomon Graves thanked the governor “for his continued commitment to public safety.”

“Since we began this administration, we’ve brought online 680 new beds that we’ve been able to net with his support so I wanted to acknowledge him for that,” Graves said. 

Plans for the Calico Rock expansion are expected to be ready by spring. They will be reviewed by the board of corrections and the governor with the goal of starting construction in the first half of 2023. 


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.