210216_COVID-19 Press Briefing
8:29PM Feb 16, 2021
Governor Asa Hutchinson
Dr. Jose Romero
Alex Burch - KATV
Josh White - KAIT
David Ramsey - ANNN
Col. Robert "Gator" Ator
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome today's COVID-19 weekly update. But we will focus first on the weather issues that have plagued our state over the last couple of days and will continue to be an issue and through Friday at least, I'm delighted to be joined today by Secretary Jose Romero, the Department of Health. Also Secretary Johnny key from education. We have, in addition, Director AJ Geary, our Director of emergency management is here with us as well. And then a Colonel Robert aider who is our program manager for vaccine distribution. And they're all joining me remotely today, but will be available for questions or comments as the need arises. What we're seeing in Arkansas is the most severe weather event in my lifetime. This is plaguing not just our state, but also our region. And it makes it even more complicated whenever you have Texas gas shortages, power shortages, Oklahoma as well. The supply chain has impacted our state in Arkansas. As a result of the weather emergency I have extended the National Guard deployment through Friday. And I want to applaud them for being of such assistance to motorists to those that are providing emergency services that they can have the extra support of the National Guard. We have 100 guardsmen they're deployed across the state. We have 26 Humvees that are engaged. We have also approved to ambulance crews to help the emergency workers as they provide the ambulance service. This is going to continue through the rest of the week, we expect up to eight inches of snow. I'll leave that to the weathermen for their predictions. But that does influence how we prepare for this as a state in terms of power. Approximately 18 to 20,000 Arkansas residents are still without power around the state. I know the you teleties are working hard to get the power restored. And the hard hit areas are McHenry County with 2100 customers out garlin County, Little River all sequentially in leading into customers that are out. And we hope that that gets restored very quickly. In addition, the Southwest power pool, which controls the supply of energy and part of the state, they had controlled interruptions of electric service that was instituted this morning at 7am in order to prevent a larger system failure. But by 1015, all that power had been restored and controlled interruptions had ended. And we're glad for that. But they will continue to be in an emergency alert status, meaning the system is operating below minimum reserve and energy conservation remains critical. And that word has gone out to our Kansans and as temperatures continue to rise. Today, the electric service is expected to improve. But this will remain a challenge for us in the coming days and we have to take steps to conserve energy. And then on the natural gas front this really has been impacted by Texas and by Oklahoma particularly, there is a regional shortage of natural gas due to a combination of high demand in cold weather, but also some wells being inoperable because of the freezing temperatures. And so this is impacted both customers at the industrial level as well as some residential customers. And as temperature rise we hope the strain on the natural gas supply will diminish. But this is something that we are watching very carefully. And this is a regional shortage that we hope will improve. With that. Let's go to a couple of graphs before I come to vaccines. And this is the current road conditions in blue you can see the roads that are impacted and risky. The and this is coming from Arkansas Department of Transportation and they have done a very good job of clearing roads, assaulting areas and I applaud their efforts. If you go to the next slide, you'll see where you can call out Drive Arkansas both a website and an app in which you can get information on driving in Arkansas that we hope that you will avoid, if possible. And then let's go to the vaccine report. First, you will see that all total we've received 658,000 doses here in Arkansas, we've given out 69.7% of those doses. Even with the terrible weather yesterday, we gave out 3342 doses, which tells me the demand is there, people are looking for the opportunity to get their vaccination, the federal program, you can see, with CVS, Walgreens continues to move forward at and they've given out 37.8% of those doses, the total doses get received seven or 19,000, given as 481,000. And we continue in phase one, B, which simply means that we're focusing on our Kansans, age 70 or older, and education workers K through 12, childcare and higher ed, we are very anxious if you're in those categories. I know the 70 plus particularly are knocking on doors to get the vaccines, we want to get as many of those vaccinated as possible before we move to add additional one B characteristics into that vaccination program. And then if you look at the cases, this is not very significant in terms of meaning because as you can see, the testing was so depleted from yesterday with a bad weather having only about 2200 tests that were given, we have new cases of 177, our active cases have declined by 1003 or 90, below 10,000. For the first time in a long time. This is great news for us. We've had 12 deaths regrettably over the last 24 hours, one statistic that you can continue to measure that is more constant, that is not as dependent upon the weather and that is the hospitalizations because this reflects people who are ill and need hospital care that's been reduced again by four. And so let's, let's look at a couple of announcements that I wanted to share. First of all, are large and indoor, large indoor event directives. As you recall, in early January, it was January 2, we said that if you're going to have more than 10 and indoor event, you have to have a plan submitted to the Department of Health and approved. Because of the progress that we've made. We are raising that level again to 100 for an indoor event. Before you have to have the specific plan approved. There's still certainly guidelines to follow, but this should be helpful to everyone. And then next will be our school and community Sports. Today on the website. They will be posting the directive updated to allow competitions with two or more teams. The plan must be submitted to the Department of Health and the host venue is responsible for compliance. But we hope those directives will be instructive and helpful to everyone who is looking at indoor events or those particular activities. I did have a call today with the White House Coronavirus Task Force. And it was announced at the meeting at the call with the governor's that they are in creasing these national supply allocated to the States by 2.5 million doses. And this is the largest weekly increase yet of our vaccines since our vaccine program was started. For Arkansas, this will mean an additional six to 7000 doses per week. This is good news. We have not received those doses yet. So it is something that has been allocated and we are expected to receive those doses either this week or next week in terms of that increase. In terms of the Walmart pharmacy, we appreciate their their partnership with us. And as you know they were allocated 11,600 doses last week, we're working hard to get those out the weather is interrupted or they're making great progress on that. And because of that we expect that dosage to increase down the road. But those details are uncertain yet. I talked to Walmart today and they have not received notification of that increase yet so stay tuned for additional news there. With that. Let me turn the microphone over to Dr. Romero, for his comments.
Thank you, Governor.
We've done very well with regard to our bid reserve. The cases have gone down. I want to remind everyone that we still have the concern about our variance, various viruses, they are in this country. We have not found one here in Arkansas yet, but we assume that they are present. That means that our physical mitigation measures need to continue. And that is wearing our masks. And the CDC has just as stated that wearing a cloth mask, along with a paper mask increases the ability to decrease spread of the virus and that is an option you can do but at least wearing a mask of appropriate fitting fitting the face appropriately is is recommended the physical distancing of six feet and washing your hand vaccines are being distributed. The Janssen vaccine, which is a single dose vaccine is going before the FDA this month. ACI p the CDC arm will look at that vaccine within 24 to 36 hours and will probably be shipped shortly thereafter. So we will be having more vaccine in the future as per the CDC and the FDA. So I'll stop there a governor and turn it back to you.
Thank you Dr. Romero, and director AJ Gary, I just want to recognize you. I know we're switching topics here. But in addition to the comments that I made on the weather and the emergency services being provided, did you have any additional comment?
I wonder I think you've covered everything, just encouraging people to conserve energy. So that will help out and we won't have to go to intermittent shutting off of electricity or gas. Also with the event coming in just encouraging people to stay off the roadways, if at all possible and let the road crews department transportation, they're doing a great job and along with our local city and counties, just give them an opportunity to keep the roads clear. So I think that's it. Thank you.
Thank you. And with that, let's go ahead and open it up for questions and, and I'll be miserable, as well as Colonel ater in case there's questions that come in their territory. With that. Are there any questions?
governor, this is David Ramsey with the Arkansas nonprofit. Two questions for you related to work requirements in Arkansas works.
Do you have any comment on the bottom administration resending the work requirements? And can you kind of speak to what that might mean for the future of the Arkansas works program and Medicaid expansion in Arkansas? And second question. Arkansas DHS officials signed an agreement that then CMS director Sima Burma sent that would impose a nine month period before a waiver can be withdrawn. If the by the administration attempts to withdraw the work requirements waiver before that nine month period with the state raising objection, would it try to mount a legal challenge? Can you kind of speak to where things stand on that as well?
I'm not in a position to answer the latter question. In terms we have a waiver that's in place. We have no indication of that will change before the timeframe of the waiver, but probably have to have our Department of Human Services respond more specifically to your question there. In terms of Arkansas works. Let me look at the refer back to the fact that Arkansas works has the expanded health care. And we did put in a work requirement, which is a community engagement requirement that was struck down by the courts. And so we have been, I guess it's close to a year now or more without the work requirement being in place. And so we have a Medicaid expansion program in Arkansas, that does not have that component that was sort of fundamental to Arkansas works is not a surprise that the Biden ministration has changed the policy from the Trump administration says they're no longer going to approve work requirements as a Medicaid waiver. So that's not a surprise to us. It doesn't change the what we're doing here in Arkansas at the present time. It does impact our planning for the future. And then the other part of it is the fact that we're still have the case before the United States Supreme Court. And this was supported by the Trump Justice Department. And the question is, will the Biden justice justice Justice Department, change their view and position before the court, quite frankly, I expect that to happen. But we will see. And I spoke with the attorney general's office today from Arkansas, and they're prepared to make their case to the United States Supreme Court regardless. And so that's another aspect of it, then the third part of Arkansas works is are the waiver that we will request authorization for, before the Arkansas General Assembly, and we're working closely with them to be innovative, to obtain a waiver for the program that works for Arkansas, that does include some new elements that will help in health care outcomes, but also will help in terms of responsibility for the recipients will have to do that in a way that can get approved by the by the administration. That's a work in progress. Next question. Go ahead. Do you have a follow up?
Yeah, just you you anticipate that that the obviously, there's going to be some changes as you described, but that the Medicaid expansion, the coverage expansion will continue in some form, despite the loss of the work requirements?
Yes, I expect that it may, just as it has over the last year without the work requirement. The coverage has continued. And I expect that to continue into the near future. And assuming we can get a waiver that's agreed upon, I certainly hope that it will continue beyond that. Next question.
Arkansas democrat Gazette. I'm gonna talk about on those directives with the largest events and the sports tournaments, what the, what your reason was for changing those requirements?
Well, of course, January of this year, we were really at the height of the pandemic in Arkansas, the number of new cases. And so this was implemented as an extra precaution, trying to get us through the winter. And now that we see our cases, more in line with what they were last late October and early November of last year, we can go back to where we were previously, where if you had 100 or more attendees at an indoor event, you have to get the plan approved. So this is not opening up the Wild West, is not acting without department approval on major indoor events. But it gives more latitude for the smaller, could be weddings, it could be you know that's in a convention type center, it just makes life simpler in the planning, we have also put into place a an additional guideline for these events to make sure they know even if they're a smaller event, what they need to do to keep good health outcomes, in terms of the community supports, this was something that Department of Health looked at, and I applaud their willingness to take a fresh look at this, because what we found that we had girls volleyball teams that when they finish their regular sports season in the school, you know, they're in a volleyball competition community program. And because we're not having those events in Arkansas, they're going to Tennessee and Missouri and Texas and surrounding states, and then coming back. So there wasn't any advantage to us by not having by prohibiting those programs in Arkansas, we've got better at it. We've put in some guidelines to help them and have to be approved by the Department of Health. So I think everybody feel comfortable that we could do this in a safe fashion as long as the guidelines are followed. Dr. Romero, do you have anything to add to that?
No, sir. I think you summarized that very well. Thank you.
Well, I summarized it at length, maybe not that well. But thank you. Next question.
Hi, this is Alex with CHANNEL SEVEN. Yes. My question is with this severe weather, is there anything you're doing to make sure that people still have access to COVID tests? anything you're doing to make sure testing continues? My second question is, is there a concern that people who are sick are not seeking care at the hospital because of this weather?
Tell me if I don't get the question right. But you You're asking, Are we doing anything to help the COVID testing be available and be utilized during this time. And it's really a difficult balance, whether you're talking about the the sick getting to the hospital, which is, obviously, that's why we have Ambulance Service. That's why we have the National Guard out there to make sure that if somebody needs hospital care, needs to have that kind of transport, that that can be done in a safe fashion. That's exactly the reason we have our national guard with our Ambulance Service teams that will be deployed. It's a little bit different when you're talking about COVID testing, because there you have to balance Do I go out on rain risk? Being on a very icy road to get a COVID test? Or do you wait till the roads clear, those are judgment calls that only everybody can make in their individual homes and lives. In terms of what the state is doing, we just want them to use good judgment, we want to make sure the testing is available, and that if somebody desperately needs it, they can call their health department, they can call their medical provider, and I'm sure that they will do whatever is necessary to make sure they get the test and the help that they need. Dr. merrow, do you have anything else on that?
Just to add to it so that I don't believe that that hospitalization is being impeded. At this time, we're not hearing any reports that that persons are not able to reach hospitals. So I think that there's still access to the to the health care system, and hospitalizations. And I think a reduction in hospitalizations is a true reduction in numbers at this time. Thank you.
examiner, this is Josh with Kitt. I was curious with the increasing of the numbers for indoor activities, some of the smaller mom and pop restaurants that are at full capacity or maybe 5060 people, would they fall under this? Or are they still being withheld to the dude to third standard? And is there any, any wiggle room for that?
Well, the restaurants are under separate guidelines completely. And so the indoor venues that, you know, that's a separate guideline for them, where they can go up to 100 capacity. But even within that, there are space limitations. So they are limited in a similar way, in terms of spacing at our capacity. But they obviously have a larger venue that they can see that many people, but they have space limitations in the restaurants. They're at two thirds capacity. And, and and even if you're an indoor venue and you have a restaurant there, you have to follow the restaurant guidelines that are totally separate.
One One quick follow up question. If a restaurant has it, it can safely put 50 to 75 people in the restaurant and be at 100% full capacity. wouldn't wouldn't this seem like it's hindering them to remain them it two thirds?
Well, I'm not following that, Josh.
Well, let me try to explain it better if if the mom and pop restaurant here in Jonesboro can put 50 people in there, and that is their full capacity and everybody's six feet apart and wearing masks and everything. Isn't it kind of impeding them to keep them into two thirds standards whenever they can realistically come in, and and be at full capacity safely?
Well, if you're saying that 50 is their full capacity, then the space limitations would say it's two thirds capacity. You're right. And so sure this is a burden on our restaurants. And that's why I'd like to be able to lift all of the restrictions that are in place. And that's why we want the cases to go down. We want the vaccines to be distributed so we can lift restrictions, but at the present time, those space limitations are important for it. Next question.
Governor its new Vladmir in hot springs, two part vaccine question first for for citizens over 70 who are calling the pharmacies and being told to the only way to get in line is to do it online to get in line and they're not comfortable with computers. Is there an alternative for those people who who just don't do computers? And then the second question is online. Related to that, but in your white house meeting last week, if I understood the coverage rank what you were looking for, which was hoping that the state could have more control in the vaccines? Are you talking about the what the big pharmacy chains are doing? And maybe you could detail what you meant by that, because clearly the state is getting more shots in arms on the pharmacies, percentage wise. Thank you.
Thank you, Neil. And let me call on Colonel aider for the first part of the question. Colonel, did you hear that clearly?
Yes, sir. And very simply, is that what the process we have for those that aren't currently online or don't have the capacity to do so they can call the the ADH help helpline. And then those people there, we'll get them the phone numbers with the the pharmacy in their location or their community, and help them get to that in we're working through some other potentials. But right now, that is the process that we have in place. And, and so you know, please just call the ADH number, if you go on to the ADH website. And under the COVID tab, it'll give you what that number is.
And, and I and this is where community agencies and churches really can come in helpful as well. And I hope that there will be I'm sure they are in hot springs, those community action agencies that can assist someone that does not feel comfortable, you know, going online or feel very familiar with it, Neal, and the second part of your question, it's not just my message, but it's a message of the National Governors Association and the governor's individually, that we are doing a good job getting the vaccinations out. And that our encouragement is that all we need is a greater supply. And we're going to do it well, in terms of efficiency, we're also going to do it well in terms of equity, getting into rural areas of our state. And, and so we want new supply to come to the state so that we can get our job done. Now, I'm very, very supportive of the relationship with Walmart, because they're doing a good job with and then we have the partnership, the state level with our local community pharmacies, and they're doing a good job. But we don't want the federal government in the future creating new pathways for the vaccines to flow outside of the direction of the state. All of this has to be coordinated with the state. That's the message I had along with other governors. We'll see if that message works. Next question. And actually, Nia, let me come back. I do believe the administration heard the point the governor's made because this week, they did not announce a new program. They announced that we're going to get at the state level, the greatest allocation really we've had since the vaccination began. So I do believe they heard that and they were responsive to it. With that, thank you for your attention today on this cold wintry day. And you all be safe and stay warm. Thank you