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Panel OKs extension of state's virus emergency

Lawmakers reject bid to lift governor’s executive orders by Frank E. Lockwood, John Moritz | March 30, 2021 at 7:08 a.m.
The Associated Press GOVERNOR: In this July 20 file photo, Gov. Asa Hutchinson removes his mask before a briefing at the state Capitol in Little Rock.

Arkansas' yearlong public health emergency was extended by another 60 days on Monday, after lawmakers defeated an attempt by several Republicans to end the emergency and lift all remaining executive orders issued in response to the covid-19 pandemic.

The vote by the Legislative Council was the first test of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's newly limited executive powers under Act 403, a measure passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor earlier this month.

It came as the number of covid-19 cases in Arkansas continues to fall. The number of new cases increased by just 79 while the number of active cases fell by 172, to 1,773, the state Department of Health reported Monday.

The number of deaths rose by six, to 5,601.

With mask mandates ending this week, state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha stressed the need for Arkansans to voluntarily follow public health recommendations.

The risk of a resurgence is real, she said.

"If people do not continue to take steps to prevent the spread of covid-19, we will begin to see an upswing in cases like some other states have reported," she said.

Act 403 requires legislative review of executive orders and makes it easier for lawmakers to end a state of emergency. The law was enacted after months of public frustration by some lawmakers about Hutchinson's response to the covid-19 pandemic, including a statewide mask mandate issued last year.

Appearing before the Legislative Council on Monday, Hutchinson said he would allow the mask edict to expire Wednesday, after his decision to lift other public health directives on businesses.

Still, the governor said an extension of the public health emergency was necessary to encourage Arkansans to get vaccinated against covid-19 and to allow low-income residents to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits from the federal government.

"My goal is to have another 1 million shots into the arms of Arkansans within the next 60 days, during the extension of this emergency," Hutchinson said. "If the emergency is lifted, then many will say a shot is not needed."

Statewide, health officials reported 5,272 more vaccinations Monday.

Thus far, 390,079 people have been reported as fully immunized in Arkansas, while another 341,453 have been partially immunized.

The state's population is just over 3 million people.

As of Monday, more than 1.92 million shots had been earmarked for Arkansas, but fewer than 1.1 million of them had been injected.

Of the state's supply of vaccine doses, 58.7% has been used. Of the shots allocated through federal programs, 46.4% have been given, the state Health Department said.

President Joe Biden is seeking, nationwide, to accelerate the pace. On Monday, he said 90% of the adult population should be eligible for one of the three FDA-approved vaccines within the next three weeks, and 90% should be able to obtain the shots within five miles of their homes.

The White House push came as Arkansas is looking to step up its own efforts.

"In regard to President Biden's call to have more than 90% of the adults eligible to receive the vaccine, I will make an announcement tomorrow as to our timeline," Hutchinson said in a written statement Monday evening.

While promising to end his mask order, the governor sought approval from lawmakers for the extension of five executive orders related to telehealth and health care access, public notaries, business liability and a shift of the state income tax filing deadline to May 17.

Some lawmakers dismissed the ongoing threat of the virus and called for the Legislature to take greater authority over the state's pandemic response by ending the yearlong emergency declaration.

"We are past time; I think it is time for the Legislature to act," said Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale.

Other lawmakers expressed concern that even without directives from the state, voluntary Health Department guidelines could continue to influence businesses' decisions during an emergency by opening those businesses up to liability.

Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, made the motion to deny the requested extension, explaining that her reasoning was not "intended to be a jab at the governor," while still faulting him for not offering more clarity in his orders or requesting a shorter extension.

"The truth is, life is still drastically different. Even though we're saying that these are not mandates, these are guidelines or recommendations, that's just not how people are operating," Davis said. "They're still operating like these things are mandates, and we are still being prohibited from living life."

By a voice vote, the Legislative Council defeated the motion to deny the governor's requested extension. Under Act 403, the extension will automatically go into effect unless the Legislative Council votes to deny it.

One of the sponsors of the legislation to limit the governor's powers, Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked his colleagues to extend the emergency in order for the governor's executive orders to remain in place while lawmakers work to codify those policies with legislation.

After a few more minutes of debate, lawmakers also voted to extend the governor's five remaining executive orders related to the pandemic.

Hutchinson said those orders will remain in effect during the extension, unless lawmakers pass legislation to the same effect.

The governor's decision to end mask mandates came as Biden and White House coronavirus experts were pleading with elected officials to keep them or bring them back.

"Please, this is not politics. Reinstate the mandate if you let it down," Biden said.

Asked to respond to the president's plea, Hutchinson said in a written statement that his position hasn't changed.

"I have previously said the mask mandate will be lifted if certain public health goals were met. These include low hospitalizations, cases and positivity rate. All of the criteria have been met, and the mask mandate will be lifted on March 31, as promised," he said.

"We will continue to take the virus seriously, and that is reflected in the vote of the legislature today to support a 60 day extension of the public health emergency," he said. "Every Arkansan understands what needs to be done, and I continue to ask for guidelines to be followed until our vaccines are in a greater percent of Arkansans."

Since the start of the pandemic, 330,008 cases of covid-19 have been reported by the Health Department. That's nearly 1 out of every 9 state residents. The virus has claimed the lives of roughly 1 out of every 540 Arkansans.

As of Monday, covid-19 had resulted in 15,318 hospitalizations over the past year -- roughly 1 out of every 200 people. The Health Department reported Monday that 164 people were in the hospital with covid-19, down by seven from the day before.

Since peaking in January, the number of covid-19 cases has plummeted.

While the state's prisons and its nursing homes were hit particularly hard initially, the numbers there have eased.

The Health Department reported no newly confirmed covid-19 cases in correctional facilities Monday.

Most of the state's 75 counties had no new cases included in Monday's report. Those with the most were Washington (13), Pulaski (nine), Benton (eight), St. Francis (eight) and Craighead (seven) counties.

Pulaski County led the state with 259 active cases, followed by Benton (199) and Washington (162) counties.

The number of covid-19 patients needing ventilators rose by one, to 28.

"In general, we're still moving in the right direction," Dillaha, the state epidemiologist, said. "Our total active cases is well below 2,000 now, which is very encouraging. The number of deaths are low and the number of hospitalizations are still coming down."

At this point, 16.43% of the population age 16 and up has been completely immunized. Another 14.38% of that population is partially immunized.

The percentage of fully immunized residents is highest in Central Arkansas: 17.9%. The totals ranged from 13.1% to 13.9% in the state's other six hospital preparedness regions.

The availability of vaccines is going to increase in the coming weeks, Dillaha said.

Asked whether vaccine supply would be sufficient by the end of April to provide shots to any Arkansan 16 and older who wants one, she said, "I feel almost certain that it will."

John Vinson, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said Monday that in some places, supply is already outstripping demand.

The Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network, which is a group of 142 independent or small-chain pharmacies in Arkansas, hasn't put in its order for Pfizer vaccines yet, but Vinson anticipates it won't order all of the roughly 14,000 doses it's eligible for. He said there are a lot of leftover doses from last week.

The group will order its full allocation of one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines, 4,000 doses.

Of the network members that have chosen to provide covid-19 vaccines, 44% had reported having trouble filling all of their appointments, he said.

Vinson said the inability to fill appointments may be attributable to more than just vaccine hesitancy. A lot of Arkansans may not know they're eligible based on health conditions, such as moderate-to-severe asthma or high body mass index, he said.

He reiterated that he hopes the governor opens vaccinations to anyone 16 and older soon.

"I'm hopeful whenever we open it up, we'll be able to fill all those slots easily," he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Nyssa Kruse of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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