Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a challenge Tuesday for up to 50 percent of Arkansans to be vaccinated against COVID-19 within the next 90 days.

Currently, 34 percent of the state’s population has received at least one vaccination shot. Two of the three vaccines currently in use in Arkansas require two shots for full effectiveness.

To reach that goal, the governor said 467,206 additional Arkansans would have to be vaccinated. The 90 day benchmark is approximately three weeks from the start of school and the football season, Hutchinson said.

“This is a very critical goal that helps us really pinpoint what we need to do over the next 90 days,” he said.

The renewed push for vaccination among the adult population comes as the state sees an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases, including an increase in the number of variant strains. 

Currently, 28 Arkansas counties have recorded variant strains of COVID-19, including Ashley County.

Statewide, the number of active cases stood at 657, much lower than the peak in January, but a number that included 20 new hospitalizations to total 192 COVID patients hospitalized.

“An increase in hospitalizations means an increase in the number of active cases,” said Dr. Jose Romero, the state health director. “It is worrisome to us as epidemiologists and public health professionals. We do not want to see this continue, because it indicates we have spread of significant amounts of the virus in the state.”

Romero said epidemiologists are seeing more cases of COVID in children than they had previously. The problem is that the vaccines that have been developed are not yet approved for children.

“One way to protect them is to form a cocoon around them in adults and adolescents getting a vaccine,” he said.

Hutchinson said that a 50 percent rate of vaccination will not help achieve so-called herd immunity, in which enough of the population is immune to a disease that it cannot spread, and he addressed recent statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the challenges of achieving herd immunity.

“I have followed the statements that it is going to be hard to reach herd immunity in the U.S., but that should be our goal,” he said. “But you can see from our percent of acceptance for the flu shot it is going to be hard for our state.”

Hutchinson said last year was the highest ever in terms of the state’s population being vaccinated against the flu at 54.9 percent.

“We normally do 40 to 50 percent,” he said. “We are setting a goal for COVID vaccinations that is even higher than we normally do to challenge the flu.”

While herd immunity is not achievable at this time, Romero said, the state is aiming to get as many adults vaccinated as possible. 

“Eventually through vaccination and reinfection, we will achieve some level of immunity,” he said.

Hutchinson said that he believes that often those who are not vaccinated are not actively resisting the idea, but are simply delaying.

“They say, ‘I don’t know anybody who is sick, so I will put it off,’” he said. “It is just as important for us to win those over as to persuade others.”

As part of the effort to get more of the population vaccinated, the state health department is going to start hosting pop-up clinics at events across the state, said Renee Mallory, the health department’s deputy director for public health programs. So far, the department has a list of between 600 and 700 events across the state that it considers good for pop-up clinics. The list includes events such as farmers’ markets, car shows, and even graduation ceremonies.

“We are going to take it where people show up,” she said. “We asked our local folks to tell us where things were going to be happening in the community. We told them no matter how big or small, if it is an event and you know there are going to be people there, we want to know it.”

Even if someone isn’t ready to get a vaccination at a pop-up clinic, someone there will be able to answer questions for them, Mallory said.

“Our goal is to get as many shots in arms as we possibly can so we can get our numbers trending down again and hopefully resume as normal a life as we can have after March of last year,” she said.

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