Governor Hutchinson’s weekly COVID-19 update focused first on vaccines, beginning with the daily report and an announcement that vaccine eligibility was being expanded to food processing workers.

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He said some 520,000 people are to be vaccinated in the I-B category while the state expects only about 320,000 doses of vaccine to be received this month. But some 360,000 have received at least one shot already. He said the state was moving “close” to finishing the category by the end of March.

He has decided the situation has improved enough to add more people to vaccine eligibility — about 49,000 people working in the food processing industry. They will arrange shots through employers. He said they were chosen because of the high incidence of the virus among these workers in the early days of the pandemic and the close quarters of their work. He said restaurants, now able to open fully, will remain in the I-C category. He said restaurants should be careful in operation and customers should take precautions and avoid places that aren’t operating safely.

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He also said the expectation of increased vaccine supplies, including 24,000 doses of the newly approved Johnson and Johnson vaccine this week, had contributed to a decision to hold vaccine clinics around the state. They’ll be open to those in the I-B category.

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It will be first-come, first-served, but the governor said the state hoped to begin a phone line next week to arrange shots at these clinics. The state’s lack of a central signup process has drawn criticism previously.

The first clinics will be held here.

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The governor said there has been “some resistance” to the vaccine in Arkansas and the state will work to encourage more. He based this on the fact that only 50 percent of those older than 70 had received shots.

The daily COVID-19 report continues to be encouraging as to the number hospitalized. The testing is down significantly from its peak, however.

Hutchinson said the state has confirmed the presence of the UK variant of COVID-19 in Arkansas, but provided no other details. This is not a surprise, he and Health Director Jose Romero said, but is a cause for continued caution.

Q&A

He said he’ll announce Wednesday if he’ll sign two pieces of controversial legislation — the stand-your-ground bill and the bill to make it harder to cast an absentee ballot by requiring a photo ID without an option to cure a failure to submit one with a mail-in ballot. He said he’s always signed anti-abortion bills, but he said the abortion ban bill heading to his desk gives him “pause” because it runs counter to the Roe v. Wade decision that prohibits states from outlawing abortion pre-viability.

Asked about sexual harassment allegations against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, he said allegations should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Then, he said, would he have an opinion on whether he should continue as chair of the National Governors Association.

He again defended the state’s processing of unemployment claims, even though thousands have been pending for months. He said the processing is complicated by federal rules and slowed by the need to root out fraud. He spoke while a court hearing was underway on the state’s refusal to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests by Legal Aid of Arkansas to get documents explaining why the benefit approval process has been so slow and problem-plagued.