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Hutchinson announces series of COVID-19 “conversations”

July 7, 2021 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday that he would hold “community COVID conversations” across the state in hopes of persuading more Arkansas residents to get vaccinated as the coronavirus continues a comeback in the state.

At a briefing, Hutchinson said he wants to hear and answer concerns feeding the reluctance of many to be vaccinated.

The goal, he said, was to engage communities at a local level and ask what can be done to overcome remaining public vaccination hesitancy. His first event is scheduled for Thursday in Cabot.

The state has recorded 270 new cases of COVID-19 since Monday, which Hutchinson said may be an undercount because of the three-day July 4 holiday. He reported 55 new COVID-19 hospitalizations since Monday, “the largest increase in hospitalizations since January.”

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“It is the largest increase of hospitalizations since we’ve had the vaccine available to prevent hospitalizations,” Hutchinson said. Six new COVID-19 deaths also were reported.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas vaccination rate remained lower than the national average, “and while we have 1 million fully vaccinated in Arkansas, that is not high enough to prevent more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths,” Hutchinson said.

Where Arkansas was making up ground against COVID-19 in April, it’s losing ground in July, Hutchinson said. He blamed the surge on the highly contagious delta variant, which now makes up more than half of the COVID-19 cases in Arkansas and nationally and is 30% to 50% more transmissible than the earliest variant. Of those hospitalized, 98-99% were not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, he said.

The delta variant also was beginning to infect the state’s children, said Dr. Jose Romero, the state health secretary.

“We cannot vaccinate our children at this point because we do not have a vaccine for them. The only way to protect them is to protect them by immunizing yourself and having a cocoon around them that doesn’t allow the virus to reach them,” he said.

The Republican governor said he was asking employers to give their workers paid time off to be vaccinated and offer vaccinations in the workplace.

A survey showed that a leading cause of reluctance to vaccinate was a concern of lost income should a worker have a short-term reaction to the vaccine, said Randy Zook, president and chief executive of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. Employers of fewer than 500 workers would receive a 100% tax credit for offering workers paid time off to be vaccinated against COVID-19, he said.