LITTLE ROCK, Ark — Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced during his weekly COVID-19 press briefing on Tuesday that Arkansas will move on to the next steps in vaccine distribution by administering the vaccine to older Arkansans and school staff.
Hutchinson's announcement comes amid lingering confusion over how the state is doing rolling out the virus protection. The expansion will still rely on a local neighborhood pharmacy model, but a plan drawn up by state military leaders is expected to address the disorganization when it is released this week.
"I'm not happy with it and that's one of the reasons we're moving into the first two categories of phase B," the Republican governor said about the bumpy rollout while also disputing statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control that show Arkansas near last among states in delivering vaccine to its population.
Other states are ahead of us when it comes to delivering shots. There's been criticism of the local model, but the governor says state military leaders are getting involved. He appointed retired Col. Robert Ator to lead distribution and coordination. He said there is one big limitation on everything.
"As we go into the different phases and we expand the vaccination program one of the things that we're going to have to work on is capacity," said the former Air National Guard leader and current head of Military Affairs for the state Dept. of Commerce.
The next step makes 443,000 more Arkansans eligible for shots. The first category allows anyone aged 70 and older to sign up to get the vaccine.
The other group has been one of the most vocal and organized of all essential workers when it comes to getting protection.
"Our K-12 school staff and employees, our daycare employees as well as our higher education staff and employees," the governor said.
But without a clear picture of how much vaccine will be available, officials struggled to paint a clear picture of how to proceed on Monday. The governor urged people over 70 to sign up for waiting lists at neighborhood pharmacies and to be on the lookout for larger clinics from area hospitals.
Educators need to follow local channels as well.
"The teacher should first contact their principals and superintendents and say 'What's our options? What's our plan?'" the governor said.
The state's largest teachers' union, the Arkansas Education Association, applauded the decision.
"Vaccinations will begin to help educators feel more comfortable as they continue working to provide the face-to-face connection for which there is no replacement," said AEA president Carol Fleming.
State health secretary Dr. Jose Romero said the state remains on target to wrap up Phase 1A, vaccinating all willing health care workers and nursing home residents by the end of January. The governor said the expansion was partially made possible after determining the number of health care workers who chose not to get shots.
Col. Ator and Arkansas National Guard Maj. Gen. Kendall Penn indicated plans for mass vaccination clinics are being drawn up but not as a first choice because of limited quantities of the vaccine. Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin tweeted Tuesday he supported using more and bigger venues to deliver shots. Authors of a closely watched model produced by UAMS also called for significant adjustments to the current vaccine plan to make it more effective.
But the governor said the number of doses, for now, is coloring the decision to stick with his current plan.
"It would not be good to have War Memorial Stadium for a mass distribution center when you only have a limited number and supply of doses," he said.
On Friday, the Arkansas Department of Health released a finalized vaccine plan. It can be found here.