Gov. Asa Hutchinson has opened vaccine eligibility to everyone who falls under the Phase 1B category.
In a Monday morning press briefing, Hutchinson told reporters that vaccines would now be available to essential government workers, Department of Corrections employees, grocery store and meal delivery service employees and employees at houses of worship, as well as employees in the manufacturing industry, postal/package delivery services and public transportation.
Essential government workers will include state legislators and staff, as well as essential judiciary employees. Hutchinson said that Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice John Dan Kemp outlined the individuals who would be essential in an order released last week. Hutchinson told a reporter that he resisted Kemp’s order, which he felt was self-determining who should move up the line for vaccination, but he said that the state was in a position where it is necessary to build demand.
Hutchinson also ordered that individuals with intellectual and development disabilities would be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in Phase 1B. This was a shift from Phase 1C, with Hutchinson noting that many individuals with intellectual/development disabilities had already been vaccinated if they were in long-term care facilities. This addition, he said, would be a limited number of individuals and would help a vulnerable population.
Previously, Phase 1B was only open to individuals aged 70 and older, as well as frontline workers, teachers and school staff, food and agricultural workers and firefighters and police not included in Phase 1-A. Hutchinson expanded eligibility to Arkansans aged 65-69 and older on Tuesday, Feb. 23.
On March 2, Hutchinson added food manufacturing workers to the list of those eligible for vaccines under Phase 1B. This included workers in the meat processing, poultry processing, and grain and oilseed milling industries.
Lower-than-anticipated demand reportedly prompted Hutchinson and state officials to open up vaccine eligibility to all Phase 1B categories. Hutchinson said that vaccine drives across the state this week saw lower numbers than anticipates, which he chalked up to individuals getting vaccines from other places and/or continued resistance to the vaccine.
Open up eligibility to Phase 1B, he said, would help keep demand for the vaccine high.
“Thanks to doctors, nurses, and pharmacies around the state, our vaccination program is running strong,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “We are seeing an encouraging drop in the number of new cases, active cases, and hospitalizations. Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero and I agree that we can now allow everyone who falls in the 1-B category who wants a vaccine to have one. This will hasten the day when we contain COVID-19 in Arkansas.”
State officials are also launching a new toll-free number for vaccine information that will supplement the existing system of calling local clinics and pharmacies to arrange for vaccination. The toll-free line will be staffed by 20 individuals starting today, and Hutchinson said 30 would be staffing it tomorrow.
The toll-free line can be access at 800-985-6030. It is staffed Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.