In Arkansas, Covid-19 cases soar as state battles vaccine doubts

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In Arkansas, Covid-19 cases soar as state battles vaccine doubts

In Arkansas, the battle against both the deadly delta variant of Covid-19 and vaccine hesitation begins, one person at a time, meeting them wherever they are. Sometimes, that’s in the church.

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At St. Teresa’s Catholic Church on Little Rock’s southwest side, Oscar Martinez was taking his chance at a pop-up vaccine clinic in a gymnasium on Saturday afternoon, sponsored by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and the Mexican Consulate — a direct attempt to reach the region’s Hispanic population .

“I’ve been in the area since last month, so I wanted to take a chance today,” Martinez told CNN.

State officials are pulling out stations to vaccinate people. Arkansas not only has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country — only about a third of eligible people are fully vaccinated — but is facing an alarming increase in Covid-19 cases — fueled mostly by Delta’s emerging type of virus.

“There is no doubt about it, our level of vaccination is not where we want it to be,” Dr. Jose Romero, Arkansas Secretary of Health, told CNN. “We have a third of our population completely immune. But we need to get much higher levels in order to get this under control.”

The reasons experts say people don’t get vaccinated in Arkansas are varied. They cite pregnant women who are concerned about the effect of the vaccine on them and their unborn children, or people who would like to see further FDA approval of vaccines beyond current emergency use authorizations. But experts said there are also those who believe in conspiracy theories about the vaccine.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. knows this suspicion all too well. It was something he wrestled with himself.

“I am a person who, as a black man, has some heartburn because of it,” Scott said. “When you think of my Tuskegee pilots, Hela cells, and his disheartening past history. I’m also someone who has never had a flu shot.”

But after losing family members to Covid, Scott said he’s found it very important to encourage people to get vaccinated.

He said, “I took the time as a leader to do the research, to understand, to be a leader and to prove to the people of Little Rock that I wouldn’t ask them to do anything I wasn’t willing to do.”

Experts say their messages to minorities face challenges, citing the state’s Hispanic population who often live in hard-to-reach rural areas, have concerns about job loss, or face their own skepticism about a vaccine.

Dr. Gloria Richard Davis, a physician at UAMS, focuses her work on reaching those groups. She said it was about making the vaccine available in the community.

“A lot of celebrities are coming out saying get the vaccine, and the average person isn’t listening to them,” she said. “So, we’re trying to understand who the day-to-day impacts of our community are and community health workers are a part of because they live and breathe.”

Aside from the community members who help share accurate information, the state government is trying to do its part. Governor Asa Hutchinson is in the midst of a tour around Arkansas hosting city halls as he takes questions about the vaccine, and the state’s Department of Health has released public service announcements that show former vaccine skeptics talking about changing their perspective.

Another thing, Richard Davis said, is making sure people are able to take time off work to get their vaccines — a major concern among communities of color.

“We work with employers to try to get them to allow that time for vaccination or if someone experiences adverse events that they don’t feel like going to work the next day, there is some flexibility that there is some leeway,” Richard Davis said.

When it comes to FDA approval of current vaccines beyond the Emergency Use Authorization, Dr. Robert Hopkins — a UAMS physician who is also the chair of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee — said he hopes that will come “fairly soon.”

“I know there are regular contacts between Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, and the FDA,” he told CNN. “I think that would help at least with a portion of our population reluctant to know that this vaccine has full approval.”

Awareness seems to be working. In Saint Teresa, Minerva Mendoza brought her 13-year-old daughter, Marie Lara, to get her vaccinations.

“My stance on the vaccine is that we can’t just sit around and wait until we get sick and then regret not getting vaccinated,” she told CNN. “For now, it’s about getting everyone involved and overcoming any fears about a vaccine so we can get ourselves out of this pandemic.”

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