Governor Hutchinson’s weekly COVID-19 briefing began with a report on the brutal cold gripping the state.

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He called it the “most severe weather event” of his lifetime, with up to eight more inches of snow to come.

He has extended National Guard deployment through Friday to provide emergency services — about 100 troops and 26 vehicles, plus two ambulance crews.

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Power interruption: 18,000 to 20,000 residents are without power, he said. Montgomery, Garland County and Little River counties are the most affected.

He noted the Southwest Power Pool, which directs allocations of power in part of the state, had about two hours of controlled interruptions of power in the western and northwestern portions of the state it serves this morning. But that ended about 10 a.m. He said energy conservation remains critical.

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He said the natural gas supply also had been strained regionally.

On to coronavirus:

The weather cut deeply into daily vaccinations and testing for new cases as well, so the case number change holds little meaning. There were 12 more deaths.

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The governor announced that the state is lifting to 100 the level at which state approval is required for group events and also a regulation on school sports. With cases more in line with last fall, the extra precautions aren’t necessary, he said. “This is not opening up the wild west.”

The governor said the state should receive 6,000 to 7,000 more doses of vaccine per week as a result of an increased federal allocation announced by the Biden administration.

Health Director Jose Romero said concerns remain about virus variants, though none has been confirmed in Arkansas yet.

Q&A

Work requirement ended by Biden administration and Medicaid expansion: He said he didn’t know if Arkansas’ existing waiver for its Medicaid expansion would end early, but the work rule waiver was put on hold by a court so that hasn’t been a factor of late. He said he expected the Biden Justice Department to withdraw its challenge of the Affordable Care Act. He said the state will try again for a new waiver that might allow some elements similar to the work rule, but that was a work in progress.

Alternatives to on-line signup for vaccines for those who can’t do it this way: They can call the Arkansas Department of Health helpline that will try to help people get in-line with nearby pharmacies. This not a solution for pharmacies that are not taking reservations, however.

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State performance: He defended the state’s handling of vaccination. “All we need is a greater supply,” he said. “We don’t want the federal government in the future creating new pathways for vaccine to flow outside the direction of the state.” The Biden administration had talked of mass clinics. Hutchinson said he thought the administration had been responsive by announcing increased distribution to the states rather than new shot programs.

The hospital count this afternoon (which Romero said he believed accurately reflected demand, rather than an inability for people to reach hospitals because of weather):

Current hospitalizations: 638
Total Beds: 8,769
Total Beds Available: 2,279
Total ICU Beds: 1,180
Total ICU Beds Available: 97
Total Vents: 1,135
Total Vents Available: 765
Total Covid patients in ICU: 250
Total Covid patients on vents: 110