Officials outline vaccine rollout priorities, urge continued caution

Gov. Asa Hutchinson  said Dec. 5 he has a goal to have 180,000 Arkansans vaccinated by the end of January and 400,000 vaccinated within 60 days. (VERSHAL HOGAN/News Observer)

When it comes to COVID-19, Arkansans are sick of it.

And that’s why pharmacists are excited about this week as vaccine rollouts continue, said Arkansas Pharmacist Association Chief Executive Officer John Vincent.

“I have family members and friends who have been affected by this, and we are ready to fight back,” Vincent said.

Pharmacies in 73 of the state’s 75 counties — including Ashley County — have received doses of at least one of the vaccines against the at-times deadly coronavirus that emerged in 2019, and more than 46,000 vaccines are to be administered this week, Vincent said.

The pharmacy industry spokesman delivered the news shortly after Gov. Asa Hutchinson outlined goals to have 180,000 Arkansans vaccinated by the end of January and 400,000 vaccinated within 60 days.

The governor said the state is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on prioritizing who receives a vaccine and when they receive it, but has made some changes. The first change was that first responders are included in priority category 1A, the first phase of people eligible to receive the vaccines.

The second change, and the one that would affect many more people, was lowering from age 75 to age 70 people who are in phase 1B.

“That is the population that is at risk in Arkansas, that was the consensus from our health advisors and our team,” Hutchinson said. “That is the age group that comprises the most deaths from COVID, so we want them in 1B.”

Others included in 1B — the phase that should start in February —are frontline essential workers such as teachers and school staff; food and agriculture workers; first responders not in 1A; manufacturing workers; grocery store workers; public transit workers; child care workers; U.S. Postal Service workers; and essential government workers.

“For 1A, hospitals and pharmacies are setting up clinics and systems of vaccinations,” Hutchinson said. “For 1B, which we hope to begin Feb. 1, we will continue to use pharmacies and hospitals as they complete their health care worker assignment. We will also utilize our local health units that will be having teams to vaccinate as well.”

The full plan will be presented on the state health department’s Website by Jan. 15, he said.

A third phase of rollout, phase 1C, is estimated for April. It includes people who are ages 65 to 69; people who are 16 to 64 with high risk medical conditions; and certain other essential workers.

State Health Secretary Jose Romero stressed Tuesday that the vaccine is effective.

“This vaccine has been shown to be safe in all three phases of development, in its licensure and in its post-licensure,” he said.

Even as state officials rolled out plans to vaccinate the population, however, they warned that infection numbers are skyrocketing. Tuesday saw more than 4,000 newly confirmed cases reported, a record for a single day.

Romero said that the state’s health system is currently compensating for the new cases but that cases were sure to increase.

“What we are seeing now is what all of us have warned about, which is a surge on top of a surge,” he said. “This can be slowed down, it cannot be completely stopped at this point. This is not an exaggeration.”

In the southeastern hospital region — which includes Ashley County — approximately 13 percent of hospital beds are occupied by patients infected with COVID.

As of Tuesday, Ashley County had 113 reported active cases of COVID 19, down nine from Monday. A total of 21 county deaths have been officially connected with the virus.

While detected cases of COVID have captured much of the public’s attention, the Arkansas Department of Health has quietly continued monitoring the cases of influenza as the state enters the flu season. 

For the last week of the year, the health department reported that flu activity in the state is still minimal for flu-like illnesses.

The report notes that since the end of September, ADH databases have recorded 842 confirmed cases of influenza, and that “Among flu antigen tests this season that can distinguish between influenza A and B virus types, 37 percent were influenza A, and 63 percent were influenza B.” Seven deaths have been attributed to flu so far this flu season.

While the flu numbers appear low compared to COVID-19, peak flu season on a 15-year average is in February. 

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