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Surplus doses go out in state; virus cases tick up

Legislators question pace of rollout; cat tests positive by Andy Davis, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette , Michael R. Wickline | January 27, 2021 at 5:58 a.m.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks Tuesday Jan. 26, 2021 at the state Capitol in Little Rock during his weekly covid press conference. More photos at arkansasonline.com/127governor/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

About 2,500 people were vaccinated at Walgreens locations in Arkansas within a 24-hour span after the doses were made available Monday to eligible members of the public, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday.

At the governor’s weekly news conference on the pandemic, Col. Robert Ator, who is coordinating the state’s vaccination effort, said he expected an additional 3,000 doses of the vaccine to be available at certain CVS locations in the state starting Monday.

The doses at both pharmacy chains were originally designated for workers and residents at long-term-care facilities as part of a federal program, but state officials have said the two companies were allocated more doses than they needed for that effort.

State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said Friday that the surplus doses included 17,000 that were initially allocated to Walgreens and 12,000 that were designated for CVS.

Ator on Tuesday put the number of surplus doses that have been identified at CVS at about 11,000.

Hutchinson also said Tuesday that he welcomed reports that the amount of vaccine being allocated to states by the federal government will increase next week by about 16%.

According to figures released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas will get enough doses to provide initial shots to about 43,025 Arkansans, up from 37,125 this week.

Both totals are in addition to doses the state receives each week to provide booster shots to people who received their initial shots earlier.

Hutchinson said the increase “will allow us to get more vaccinations into the arms of Arkansans” and that he didn’t expect the state to have any trouble distributing it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we have a team that can get that done,” he said.

The developments came as the spread of the virus in the state showed signs of accelerating after week-over-week case increases had mostly declined over the past several days.

The state’s count of cases rose Tuesday by 2,485 — an increase that was more than 1,100 cases bigger than the number added to the state’s tallies the previous Tuesday, Jan. 19.

After rising by four Monday, the number of people hospitalized in the state with the virus rose Tuesday by 11, to 1,095.

But after an increase Monday, the number of patients who were on ventilators fell Tuesday by 11, to 176.

The state’s death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 40, to 4,690.

Also Tuesday, the University of Arkansas System’s Agriculture Division said a Central Arkansas house cat recently tested positive for the virus, prompting a division veterinarian to warn Arkansans who have covid-19 to limit contact with their pets.

REDISTRIBUTED DOSES

Under the federal long-term-care vaccination program, Walgreens and CVS were allocated 49,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine, which state officials have said is more than the companies will need.

As of Tuesday morning, the companies reported having administered 7,046 of those doses, an increase of 61 doses from what they had reported a day earlier.

Hutchinson said that number doesn’t include the 2,500 doses that had been administered at Walgreens pharmacies this week to the broader population of people now eligible for shots.

Arkansans age 70 and older and employees of child care centers, elementary and secondary schools and higher-education institutions fall under Phase 1-B of the state’s vaccination plan and officially became eligible for the shots last week.

Front-line “essential workers,” such as factory and grocery workers, also fall under Phase 1-B but won’t be able to get the vaccine until later.

Long-term-care residents and workers, along with health care workers and first-responders, fall under Phase 1-A of the plan, making them the first Arkansans who were allowed to receive vaccines.

Hutchinson said Walgreens and CVS “have completed, or they will complete this week, their obligation with our long-term-care facilities that are assigned to them.”

Ator, director of military affairs for the state Department of Commerce and the retired commander of the Arkansas Air National Guard’s 189th Airlift Wing, said state officials are still working to determine the total amount of surplus doses that will be available from the companies, as well as from state-based pharmacies that provided the vaccine to long-term-care facilities.

Dillaha said Friday that 23,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine were being redistributed from state-based pharmacies serving the facilities to two hospitals and several drugstores around the state.

Rachel Bunch, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said last week that the state overestimated the amount of vaccine that would be needed for the facilities because it based the amount on licensed beds.

She said the occupancy rate in the facilities had dropped to an unusually low level, in part because of covid-19 deaths and a reduction in people getting elective surgical procedures and needing rehabilitation afterward.

ALLOCATION INCREASE

For next week, the federal government has allocated the state the same amount of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech that the state received this week, but the amount of the Moderna vaccine will increase, according to the CDC.

The allotment will include enough vaccine to provide initial shots to 24,500 people with the Moderna vaccine, up from 18,600 this week, and 18,525 people with the Pfizer vaccine.

The total allotment of 43,025 first doses is the state’s largest since it received its first shipments of the Moderna vaccine in December.

In that first week, the state received more than 50,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to provide initial shots, along with 18,525 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

As of Tuesday morning, pharmacies and other providers had received a total of 410,175 doses of the two vaccines.

They reported having administered 227,074 of those, an increase of 12,457 doses compared with a day earlier.

The number of doses delivered and administered includes some booster shots for people who received their initial shots earlier.

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 CDC data updated Tuesday, 196,815 Arkansans — or 6.5% of the state’s population — had received at least one dose.

That was the 11th-highest percentage among the states and the District of Columbia.

Arkansas ranked 18th in the percentage of the population — 1.2%, or 37,055 Arkansans — who had received two doses.

Nationally, 6.1% of people had received at least one dose, and 1.1% had received two doses.

LAWMAKER QUERIES

Several lawmakers Tuesday raised questions about the distribution of covid-19 vaccines in Arkansas.

During a meeting of the Joint Budget Committee’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee, before the announcement about the 16% increase in vaccines going to the states, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, asked if the state expects to get increased doses in the coming months.

Stephanie Williams, chief of staff for the Department of Health, said, “the positive for us so far is we do have two approved vaccines, and we are receiving both of those vaccines here in the state.

“The frustrating part is that our allocation is small, but the supply is a slow and steady trickle,” she said. “We have been consistently receiving the same amount every week.”

The supply of vaccine is “about a third of what we need,” Williams said.

“We do not have any indication at this point that the federal allotment is going to change,” she said. “We do know that there are two vaccines that are expected to be approved in March. … We know that those products are being produced, and those would enter the pipeline potentially in March.”

Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, said about 800 employees in the Cabot School District expected to be vaccinated last week, but only enough shots for about 200 has been provided so far.

“How did we … drop the ball to put such a priority, put the information out to the media, that we were going to take care of our school employees last week, and yet we are still at a 25% effect on that and don’t even know when they are going to get it?” he asked.

Evans asked how the school district was supposed to prioritize which 200 employees get vaccinated and which 600 have to wait.

“It is a frustration for everyone,” Williams said.

“The vaccine supply simply is not sufficient to provide every provider with the number of doses that they request,” she said. “We are trying to do our best to fairly distribute the vaccine across the state to all counties and to all priority groups.

“Hopefully, the vaccine supply will increase sooner rather than later,” she said.

“Older teachers obviously would be a priority,” Williams said. “Those that are in contact in the classroom, those staff should be vaccinated first versus someone who may not have as much direct contact with kids or large groups. They are difficult decisions and we recognize that, but we will get through all of those individuals in [1-B]. It is not just going to be as quickly as we would like.”

Rep. Jack Fortner, R-Yellville said, “Maybe we should be more cautious about what we say we are going to do until we know if we can do it because when our constituents hear it on the news or in the media and then it doesn’t happen, it just makes us all look foolish, and they have less and less respect and they believe us less and less that what we say is actually going to happen.”

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said she has asked the Health Department about allowing medical clinics to administer vaccine to their patients for a few months and asked why the department decided not to engage with primary care providers.

Williams said there wasn’t a decision not to engage with primary care providers

“There has been additional effort to enroll pharmacies to be providers,” she said. “My understanding … is the planning team felt like pharmacies were an important component that had been underutilized up until this point because there are pharmacies that sometimes are open at different hours than our medical providers, so it is not an either or. It’s a both and and building capacity.”

Williams said any medical provider that is qualified and wants to enroll to be a vaccine provider can do so.

“Some have filled out paperwork, but they have to sign affidavits that they will not charge [for the vaccine],” Irvin said. “However, pharmacists are charging, so why is there a difference?”

Williams said any medical provider has to sign paperwork that they won’t charge for the vaccine, but they can charge an administration fee of about $16 for the first dose and about $28 for the second dose.

“Any provider that is having an issue with becoming enrolled, feel free to direct them to me. I would love to talk with them and help them,” Williams said.

“We do have a backlog of providers that we are getting enrolled into the system,” she said. “Of course, many of the medical providers are already enrolled in the program.

“We are absolutely going to need every single provider that is interested in getting this vaccine,” she said. “As we move forward through these phases, it is slow right now. But as we receive more vaccine, hopefully, we will be able to provide it for all of the clinics that are interested in giving it and have excellent coverage throughout the state. We absolutely want all providers.”

PRECAUTIONS URGED

At Hutchinson’s news conference, Dillaha said it’s important for people to continue taking precautions, such as wearing masks in public and keeping a safe distance from people outside their households, even after they get the vaccine.

Although the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been shown to be 94%-95% effective at preventing illness, that still leaves a small chance that someone could get the virus, get sick and then pass it to others, she said.

Also, she said, it isn’t known to what degree people who have been vaccinated can carry and spread the virus, even if they don’t get sick.

The discovery of faster-spreading variants of the virus, such the ones from the United Kingdom and Brazil, make following public health guidelines especially important, she said.

“We could very well have those strains in Arkansas, and if that is the case, if we’re able to demonstrate that, these strains are more infectious, and we want to make sure we do not give them an opportunity to spread,” Dillaha said.

ACTIVE CASES RISE

The cases added to the state’s tallies Tuesday included 1,317 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.

The other 1,168 were “probable” cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.

The state’s cumulative count of cases rose to 287,187.

That comprised 229,727 confirmed cases and 57,460 probable ones.

Over a rolling seven-day period, the average number of cases added to the state’s tallies each day rose Tuesday by 165, to 1,942.

That was still well below the peak average daily increase of 3,086 cases during the week that ended Jan. 10.

The number of cases that were considered active rose Tuesday by 366, to 18,158, as 2,079 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.

Pulaski County had the largest number of new cases, 383, followed by Benton County, which had 224; Washington County, which had 199; Sebastian County, which had 193; and Garland County, which had 127.

Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department’s count of cases rose by 11.

The state’s death toll rose by 32, to 3,810, among confirmed cases and by eight, to 880, among probable cases.

Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state’s count of virus deaths grew by 13, to 1,842.

The number of people who have ever been hospitalized with the virus in the state rose by 89, to 13,401.

The number of the state’s patients who have ever been on ventilators with the virus grew by 13, to 1,408.

FORECAST ISSUED

In projections released Tuesday, researchers with the University of Arkansas for Medical Science’s Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health said Arkansans shouldn’t expect the recent drop in new cases reported each day to last.

“The UK variant of the COVID-19 virus, which has a much higher infectivity rate, is known to be circulating in north Texas, and we should expect it is circulating in Arkansas, too,” the researchers wrote.

“Consequently, we should anticipate a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the next month.”

The forecast predicted that the state’s death toll would climb to 5,609 by March 15, which it said is an increase of 1,346 compared with the number as of Jan. 15.

Unlike most previous reports, the latest one didn’t include a long-term projection of the pandemic’s peak in the state.

“The recent increases in the number of reported cases has caused the [long-term] model to be unstable and, hence, unreliable,” the researchers wrote. “We will be addressing this by reevaluating model assumptions over the coming weeks.”

CAT INFECTION

The cat, that the Agriculture Division said is the state’s first feline confirmed to have a covid-19 infection, is “reported to have recovered and is healthy,” the division said in a news release.

“People need to be aware that they should distance themselves from their pets if they have tested positive for COVID,” Heidi Ward, an extension veterinarian with the division, said in the release.

“Animals infected with the virus typically develop mild to moderate respiratory symptoms. If a person finds out they are positive for COVID-19 and suspect that their pet is also infected, they should call their veterinarian for guidance.”

“Limiting contact means no snuggling, sleeping in the same bed or sharing food with pets,” the division said in the release. It said pet owners who test positive “might consider having someone ‘pet sit’ until the owner is clear of COVID.”

According to the CDC’s website, “it appears that” people can spread the virus to animals, but the risk of animals spreading it to people “is considered to be low.”

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