Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday extended eligibility for the coronavirus vaccines to Arkansans age 65-69, a group that he previously said wouldn't have access to the shots for another month.
Hutchinson said his move to expand Phase 1-B of the state's vaccination plan extended eligibility to about 115,000 Arkansans.
The change moved Arkansans age 65-69 ahead of "frontline essential workers," such as employees of grocery stores and factories, who are also part of Phase 1-B but are not yet eligible for vaccination.
Those in 1-B who were already eligible included residents age 70 and older and employees of schools and child care centers.
Adding residents age 65-69 "is a large chunk, but we want to keep the demand for our vaccinations active," Hutchinson said.
"We want to be sure that, as we make progress in the 70-plus, that we keep the lines filled."
The Republican governor said the move would help save lives, which he listed along with preserving essential services as the objectives of the state's vaccination efforts.
"Whenever you look at the lives that have been lost, it's those that are the older age category," he said.
Previously, Arkansans age 65-69 had been listed under the state vaccination plan's Phase 1-C, which Hutchinson has said he hopes to start by April.
Arkansas Health Secretary Jose Romero said he supported the change.
"We know that a significant number of those individuals [age 65-69] have comorbid conditions, and they're at higher risk for adverse outcomes," he said.
He referred to comments by then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, in the final days of former President Donald Trump's administration, urging states to make the vaccines available to people age 65 and older as quickly as possible.
"When the secretary of Health and Human Services opened that possibility to all states, we looked at our vaccine supply here, and we thought that 70 and above would be the appropriate way," Romero said.
"At this point, what we're seeing is an increase in vaccine that's available. I think that the vast majority of states in the country have moved to 65, and I think that that's appropriate at this time."
Romero said about 42% of the estimated 336,500 Arkansans age 70 and older had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Tuesday, and 14% had received both doses.
Hutchinson also said he learned Tuesday that Arkansas' weekly allocation of vaccine doses, which this week included enough to provide initial shots of the two-dose regimens to 58,150 people, will increase next week by 4,000 doses.
He also said he plans to extend the public health emergency that he first declared in March, before it expires on Saturday.
In his State of the State address in January, he asked state lawmakers to affirm the emergency before the expiration date.
On Tuesday, he said the extension is being drafted "in coordination with the Legislature" and that it would give lawmakers "additional time to act."
He said previously that he had met with Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, on legislation the two lawmakers are working on that would make changes to the state's Emergency Services Act, which allows the governor to declare emergencies during which his executive orders have the force of law.
The law allows the Legislature to terminate an emergency at any time through a concurrent resolution.
"We're looking forward to that new procedure that will give the Legislature an opportunity to review the emergency declaration and to take action if they disagree with it," Hutchinson said Tuesday of the potential legislation.
Senate Bill 379, filed by Hammer on Tuesday with Gazaway as a House co-sponsor, directs the House and Senate to each meet in a "committee of the whole" within eight business days of the declaration of a statewide public health emergency to vote on a resolution terminating the emergency.
To extend an emergency beyond 60 days, the bill would require the governor to submit a request for approval to the Legislative Council.
The emergency could then be extended for 60 days at a time with the council's approval.
The bill also requires executive orders issued pursuant to an emergency declaration to be submitted to the council for review and would allow the council to terminate the orders by a majority vote. It would also allow the council's Executive Subcommittee to terminate Department of Health directives issued pursuant to an emergency.
The developments came as the state's count of coronavirus cases rose by 834 -- the first daily increase in more than two weeks that was larger than the one a week earlier.
Despite the uptick, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 fell by 43, to 545, its lowest level since Oct. 7.
The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators fell by 10, to 99.
That was the first time that number had dropped below 100 since Oct. 28.
The number of virus patients in intensive care units as of 2 p.m. fell by 20, to 205.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 14, to 5,377.
According to the Health Department, 4,387 of the state's coronavirus deaths, or about 82% of the total, have been among people age 65 or older.
Moving Arkansans age 65-69 to Phase 1-B of the state's vaccination plan was at least the third time Hutchinson has shifted the plan from the priority groups recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In January, he moved first responders, such police officers and firefighters, to Phase 1-A of the state's plan, even though the CDC recommends putting them in 1-B.
A day later, he announced that 1-B would include people age 70 and older, instead of people 75 and older, as the CDC recommends.
The CDC's guidance is based on recommendations from a panel of experts led by Romero, who has said the group intended for states to make adjustments to the priority groups based on their needs.
As recommended by the CDC, Phase 1-A of Arkansas' plan also included health care workers and residents and workers at long-term care facilities.
Many other states have also deviated from the CDC's recommendations or are moving through the priority groups more quickly than Arkansas.
A table compiled by The New York Times listed only six states besides Arkansas that had not expanded eligibility for the vaccines to people age 65 and older before Tuesday.
"I want everybody to bear in mind that this does not mean that everybody 70 and plus has been vaccinated, because they haven't," Hutchinson said.
But he said the state had "largely vaccinated and made available, at least for the first dose, our teachers" and had also made the shots available to emergency workers and residents and workers at nursing homes.
"You'll have to be patient as you call for an appointment, and the pharmacies are working very, very hard to make sure that they get as many doses out as they can," Hutchinson said.
He said providers reported varying levels of progress in vaccinating residents age 70 and older.
"Some parts of the state said: 'We're done. We need to move on,'" Hutchinson said.
"Other parts of the state say, 'Well, we're still working on our 70-plus.'"
Herb Sanderson, director of AARP Arkansas, said he supported extending eligibility for the vaccines to Arkansans age 65-69, even though he worried that it would make it even more difficult for those age 70 and older to get access to the shots.
"I've heard from people in that age group that still have not been able to get an appointment, and I'm concerned that there's not a statewide system where one can easily make an appointment," he said.
He said he was "particularly worried about homebound people" getting access to the vaccines.
Hutchinson said officials "have discussed many different options in terms of being able to have the most efficient system for vaccination."
Instead of the state calling pharmacies to book appointments for people, he said, it was more manageable for pharmacies to coordinate with one another.
For instance, he said, pharmacies in Sebastian County have developed a "consolidated list" of people seeking the vaccines.
"Voluntary organizations" are "really being helpful in assisting someone to get their vaccination, and those volunteers are all at the local level primarily," he added.
Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said the state is "in the serious planning stages" of a pilot program to vaccinate the homebound.
"We are looking at possibly using ambulance services to help with this, but we don't have additional details to share yet," Lesnick said in an email.
Hutchinson credited the vaccinations that have been administered to the state's elderly population, along with "better therapeutics," for helping to bring about the decline in the state's hospitalized patients from a high of more than 1,300 in early January.
Romero said the vaccines have also reduced the number of deaths occurring in the state's long-term care facilities.
He encouraged residents who haven't already gotten their shots to do so.
The uptick in cases on Tuesday coincided with an increase in testing compared with a week earlier, when many testing sites were closed due to winter storms.
The Health Department said it had received the results of a total of 4,597 polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests and antigen tests of Arkansans that were performed Monday.
That was up by more than 2,300 from the number of test results the department reported a week earlier.
After falling for 17 days, the average number of cases added to the state's tallies over a rolling seven-day period rose Tuesday by 94, to 438.
According to the Health Department, pharmacies and other providers participating in the vaccination effort coordinated by the state had received 794,230 doses as of Tuesday morning, up by 102,705 from the total as of a day earlier.
The doses the providers reported having administered rose by 13,702, to 500,914.
In addition, the Health Department said Walmart, Walgreens and CVS had administered 33,565 doses, an increase of 1,537 from a day earlier.
Walgreens and CVS were allocated 49,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine for residents and workers in Arkansas long-term care facilities as part of a federal program.
They have since made some of the doses available to eligible members of the broader public after it was discovered that they had more than they needed to cover the facilities.
Walmart was allocated 11,600 doses for vaccinations that began Feb. 13 at 58 stores as part of a federal program.
Col. Robert Ator, who is coordinating the state's vaccine program, said the retailer has been allocated 9,100 doses a week for vaccinations in Arkansas after that initial allotment.
The number of doses reported to have been delivered and administered includes some booster shots.
The actual number of shots given is higher than the Health Department's figures because providers have three days to report the doses they administer.
According to the CDC, 373,476 Arkansans, or about 12.4% of the state's population, had received at least one vaccine dose as of Tuesday.
That included 164,064 people, or about 5.4% of the state's population, who had received both doses.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas ranked 43rd in its percentage of residents who had received at least one vaccine dose and 37th in the percentage who had received both doses.
The cases that were added to the state's tallies included 419 that were confirmed through PCR tests.
The other 415 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through antigen tests.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 316,593.
That comprised 250,266 confirmed cases and 66,327 probable ones.
The number of cases that were considered active fell by 92, to 4,807, as 912 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
Benton County had the largest number of new cases, 165, followed by Pulaski County, which had 101; Washington County, which had 59; Garland County, which had 39; and Faulkner County and Lonoke counties, which each had 33.
None of the new cases were among prison and jail inmates, according to the Health Department.
The state's death toll grew by 10, to 4,321, among confirmed cases and by four, to 1,056, among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths grew by five, to 2,015.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by 47, to 14,617.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by two, to 1,505.