TODAY:S VAX COUNT: The surplus builds, with 90,000 more doses arriving in the state but only about 15,000 shots administered.

Governor Hutchinson announced today that vaccinations are open effective today to everyone through category 1-C of eligibility criteria.

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This means all people 16 and over with underlying health conditions are eligible. It will also reach restaurant workers, among others.

He said this is pushing the state to reach President Biden’s goal of having all adults eligible by May 1.

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We still haven’t matched neighboring states at opening vaccines to all 50 and over.

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The governor said there are 1 million in the new category and so appointments might not be readily available. “It might be a while before you get that appointment,” he said. “Be patient.”

He said the supply remains limited, though there are several hundred thousand doses in reserve and the vaccination rate has remained, at best, around 20,000 shots in a day.

A reporter noted the wide gap in doses received versus given, only about 60 percent. Hutchinson said, “the greatest factor” could be found in dosage held for people’s second shots. He said states that do better have had mass clinics.

He gave no indication he’d make an effort to organize state shot clinics to increase shots. But the session announced an effort by the Arkansas Bankers Association to join with Arkansas pharmacists to promote more shot clinics. He said it wouldn’t be fair to have mass clinics in, say, Pulaski County because a lot of shots could be given in a population center but it might make it harder to reach people in rural areas. “That’s a slower process,” he said.

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New cases remain relatively low, but not negligible. He noted something of a plateau in recent days. But he said there’d been a steady decline in daily deaths (reported by day of death, not when added to state totals.)

Health Director Jose Romero urged people to get shots because at least 70 percent immunity is necessary to bring an end to the pandemic.

In the Q&A session, Hutchinson said he was still hopeful about lifting the mask mandate by March 31, but specific criteria must be met.

He was asked if he’d veto SB 301 to forgive fines of businesses that violated health directives and also if he saw a path to passage of the hate crime bill he’s backed. The questioner noted that South Carolina has removed added protection for LGBT people from its proposed legislation.

Hutchinson said the fine forgiveness bill was “ill-advised” and is an encroachment by the legislature on executive and judicial powers. “I’m very troubled by that, but in terms of the next step on that, I’ll make an announcement in the next couple of days.”

He said Arkansas needs legislation that discourages targeting people because of “who they are.” He said legislators are working to get a bill that “will accomplish something but is also something we can pass.” Sen. Jim Hendren, the governor’s nephew and lead sponsor of the bill has said he opposes removing any category from this currently included in the bill.

Hutchinson said the legislation revising the emergency procedures act was a “very fair balance” between the flexibility needed by the governor and the legislature’s role as a check and balance. He said he was “OK” with the legislature’s new power to override a governor’s emergency declaration. A governor still may make the declaration. He said he would sign the legislation.

He was also asked about widespread reports of loose enforcement of shot rules and whether the state wasn’t now effectively open for all, given the haziness of what might qualify as an underlying medical condition. Hutchinson said no. He said he recognized it was an honor system, but he said there are “clear guidelines” and he “expected people to follow them.”