Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed his latest coronavirus emergency declaration to expire this week, but he stressed to reporters that the pandemic isn’t over.
“We still have 20-plus people dying every day because of COVID, and so, just because the technical emergency was not extended does not mean we’re not still in a very serious situation with the pandemic and the actions we need to take,” Hutchinson said during his weekly press conference Tuesday. “I just do not need to utilize any emergency powers, and so I didn’t ask for an extension of that.”
The state reported 800 new virus cases on Tuesday, down by about 600 from the previous Tuesday. Active cases dropped by 647 to 10,888. The statewide death toll rose to 7,651 after recording 21 deaths on Tuesday.
Statewide hospitalizations dropped by 26 to 809. Among those, 225 were on ventilators, nine fewer than on Monday.
The governor, his wife and several other state officials opened the press briefing by rolling up their sleeves for booster shots. They apparently are in good company. Of more than 9,400 people who received COVID vaccines on Monday, Hutchinson said about one-third of them were receiving their third doses.
The state still lags behind the national average with only 52 percent of residents 12 and older fully vaccinated. Northeast Arkansas also lags behind the state, as 44.2 percent of eligible Craighead County residents are fully vaccinated and Greene County is at 43.1 percent. Cross County was at 51.5 percent. Mississippi, Jackson and Randolph counties were under 40 percent.
Dr. Jose Romero, state health secretary, said lower numbers of new cases have been encouraging, but, with winter approaching, “as long as we do not have enough vaccination within the state there is a risk for another surge in the future.”
Romero said residents also need to take advantage of free flu vaccinations that are available.
“We have concerns that this year may be a very significant year for number of cases and hospitalizations because we’ve had very mild cases in the past two years,” Romero said.
On the education front, Hutchinson announced changes that could help more schools to avoid large quarantine situations.
“In terms of individuals, if you want to avoid quarantine, you get fully vaccinated, that’s one category,” Hutchinson said. “And then, secondly, if you’ve been previously positive in the past 90 days, which means you have some natural immunity within 90 days, you would not have to quarantine.”
The third category would eliminate the need to quarantine if those who were exposed were properly wearing masks, he said.
Another new protocol would eliminate the need for quarantining in schools that have vaccination rates of 70 percent or higher among students and staff. Hutchinson stressed that this protocol applies to individual campuses, not districts.
Education Secretary Johnny Key said the number of positive cases among the state’s schools had declined by about 500 in the past week to 2,001. He said masking and vaccinations are important to keeping schools in operation, but that’s not all the schools are doing.
“I want to remind Arkansans that schools all over the state are improving their ventilation,” Key said. “They are engaged in projects to upgrade their heating ventilation and air conditioning systems. They are looking at other ways as they determine what the local data shows them on how they can modify whatever operations they have internally to reduce the number of exposures.”