During a rare primetime address, Gov. Asa Hutchinson exhorted Arkansas citizens to follow public health guidelines amid a soaring number of COVID-19 cases and the approach of the Christmas holidays.
In recent days, Arkansas has seen its daily COVID-19 case counts surpass 2,000 almost each day. On Thursday, Dec. 10, the state reported 2,202 new cases and 34 deaths. There were also 34 new deaths on Wednesday, along with 2,327 new deaths. Tuesday saw 2,283 new cases and 39 deaths, while 1,118 new cases but a record high of 53 deaths on Monday.
This surge in cases, Hutchinson said, is directly related to individual actions over the Thanksgiving holidays. With the Christmas holidays two weeks away, he said Arkansas faces a “critical moment” in the pandemic that could have significant consequences.
“Unless we take the right precautions, science tells us the cases will continue to rapidly accelerate. We do not want to have a triple surge,” he said.
“Whether in testing, data analysis, hospital coordination or compliance with guidelines, we have made progress every day. Tonight, Arkansas is in another critical moment in the struggle to turn the tide of the pandemic.”
In recent community conversations, Hutchinson said that he has received guidance that a major holiday surge could result in overcrowded hospitals, which would spark a chain reaction, affecting cities’, regions’, and the state’s health care systems. Based on conversations held in Jonesboro, Hutchinson said that crowded hospitals would likely led to backed-up emergency rooms, ambulances waiting in line, first responders who cannot respond quickly – a potentially catastrophic chain of events.
To counter this surge, Hutchinson advised Arkansans to take “common sense” measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission over the holidays. He emphasized the state’s mask mandate, urging individuals to wear masks to cut down on viral transmission.
Travel during the holidays should be avoided, he said, – in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. If travel is necessary, Hutchinson told viewers to “be smart” about their arrangements and to get rapid COVID-19 tests before and after their travels.
He also encouraged individuals and families to get creative with their holiday plans. One suggestion was holding holiday celebrations outside, in order to limit the higher possibility of indoor transmission.
Hutchinson also suggested taking measures to address office Christmas parties, either forgoing them or having them approved by the Arkansas Department of Health.
For Hutchinson, the bright spot on the horizon is the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines. On Thursday, Dec. 10, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) vaccine advisory committee announced that it recommended emergency use authorization for a new COVID-19 for a vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech.
Once the State of Arkansas receives supplies of vaccine doses, the first rounds are earmarked for health care workers, with the second priority being long-term care facility residents and workers. State officials will continue to prioritize vaccine distribution “until it is widely available,” according to Hutchinson.
Universal vaccine distribution, Hutchinson forecast, will happen in “historic and record time.”While multiple vaccines are expected to be authorized, he expects widespread access to take until late spring in 2021.
Citing confidence in the vaccine, Hutchinson said that he and Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson would both be taking the vaccine once it is available. However, there is not expected to be a vaccine mandate or directive. “That should not be necessary when it is so important to our nation and state,” he said.
According to the CDC, there is not conclusive data showing what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity to kick in. In an FAQ section, the agency said that this percentage varies by disease. “Experts do not know what percentage of people would need to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19,” the CDC said.
Hutchinson also announced his intention to extend the current public emergency, which is set to expire in two days. The original public emergency declaration, which has allowed Hutchinson and state officials to take emergency actions throughout the pandemic, was signed on March 11.
He appealed, though, to the Arkansas General Assembly to support the continued public health emergency in a special meeting.
“Some have argued that the legislature should join in the decision to continue the emergency. Today, I’m asking the General Assembly to conduct a meeting as a whole to support and affirm the current public emergency. We are all in this fight together, and it takes all of us, arm in arm, united, to defeat the biggest public health crisis in our lifetime,” he said.
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