Governor Hutchinson, at his weekly COVID-19 briefing, attributed some of Arkansas’s lagging vaccination numbers on the state’s residents who receive health insurance through traditional Medicaid. Only 27,000 of the 627,000 recipients of traditional Medicaid have been vaccinated, Hutchinson said. The traditional population includes children on ARKids (not all of who are vaccine eligible), elderly people and disabled people.

“That’s extremely low,” Hutchinson said. “We have to do better.”

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He called on local physicians to reach out to patients on traditional Medicaid to encourage them to get vaccinated and said the state would raise the reimbursement rate for health care providers who vaccinate recipients of traditional Medicaid from $40 to $100.

Neither the governor nor a Department of Human Services representative in attendance provided the vaccination rate among recipients of Arkansas Works, the state’s unique version of Medicaid expansion, which includes most of the adults in the state on Medicaid.

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Today’s report

Over the last 24 hours:

2,620 new cases

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24 deaths

59 hospitalized

8 more on ventilators

11,466 doses of vaccine given

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Addressing full hospitals

Hutchinson said the $245.6 million of federal coronavirus aid the Arkansas Legislative Council approved yesterday to assist hospitals and nursing homes would help address staff shortages, which hospital officials have said is the most pressing problem in caring for patients amid the delta variant surge. Hutchinson said he’d been working with the Arkansas Hospital Association to free up additional space for coronavirus patients.

A federal coronavirus crisis team has been in the state evaluating Arkansas’s response and providing suggestions. Hutchinson said one of the recommendations was making monoclonal antibody treatment more widely available to coronavirus patients. He said part of the federal relief money approved by the legislative council addressed expanding use of the monoclonal antibody treatment.

President Biden made an impromptu call to Hutchinson yesterday to talk about coronavirus. “It was a very congenial conversation,” he said. It didn’t sound like there was much substantive.

Hutchinson said he still isn’t in favor of a statewide mask mandate. “The reason is we want to focus on vaccinations,” he said, which isn’t much of a reason. “People know what they need to do,” he said. He’s not in favor of cities imposing mandates, but he is in favor of schools requiring masks, though he’s not going to issue a statewide mandate.

If and when Attorney General Leslie Rutledge appeals Judge Tim Fox’s ruling against the state ban on mask requirements, Hutchinson has retained private counsel to represent his position before the Arkansas Supreme Court, but he’s not ready to reveal who that is, he said.

In the meantime, the Department of Education is buying a large quantity of “high efficiency filtration masks” to make available to school children across the state. Education Secretary Johnny Key hoped they would be available by the start of the year. Key also said the department had updated its Ready For Learning guidance to school districts to reflect the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation that everyone wear masks indoors in areas of high transmission of the coronavirus. He said the department was making sure districts understood “the status” of the mask court case and declined to say what he thought of the ruling.

The department has created a marketing campaign, “Stop the hesitation, get the vaccination,” to encourage vaccine-eligible school children to get the shot.

The ACHI Policy Board today recommended that schools consider pushing back the start of school. Hutchinson said he’d consulted with Key and Health Secretary Jose Romero and they didn’t see any advantage to delaying school. Transmission will still be high and kids 11 and under will still be ineligible to receive the vaccine.

“I think we’re in a worse position than we were in January,” Hutchinson said of Arkansas and the coronavirus. “The solutions are more difficult. The pressure points are more difficult.” He said tomorrow he’ll convene hospital leaders to discuss strategies for getting through the surge. “Everyone has to realize, it’s not a good time to get sick,” Hutchinson said.