LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – It has been an 18-month journey, one that was expected to be over months ago. The pandemic has no doubt taken a toll on frontline workers, but it has also brought plenty of challenges for Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.
Hutchinson sat down with FOX 16 News to discuss ongoing challenges the state is facing in its fight against the virus.
The governor noted that his decisions on how the state reacted to the pandemic – declaring a public health emergency in March of 2020, lifting it a year later with the wide arrival of vaccines and then reinstating the emergency due to spikes from the delta variant – will go down in the history books.
Now, with researchers warning of new variants on the horizon, Hutchinson is taking a pragmatic rather than fearful approach.
“It doesn’t scare me, but it troubles me,” he said when asked about possible mutations of the virus. “It makes me cautious about where we go in the future.”
Unlike the first waves of the pandemic, more children are contracting and being hospitalized with the virus. Hutchinson said he is closely following how schools are handling mask mandates despite a state law, which he signed off on, banning such rules.
Despite a failed attempt to amend the measure during a special session in August, the governor notes he is open to calling another special session to re-address the law.
“Right now, we’re in a good position because Judge Fox struck the whole law down as unconstitutional, we do have that local option,” Hutchinson explained. “I’m hopeful the Supreme Court will affirm that and agree with that local option, and if that’s not the case, and we continue to have problems and there’s a willingness, the legislature will look at that. That’s always an option.”
The governor also shared his thoughts on why so many in the state have pushed back against mask requirements, despite many health officials citing them as a critical tool in the fight against the virus.
Hutchinson said he felt many Arkansans see the mandates as an “imposition on freedom” but believes that the split in public opinion is being driven more by politics than public health.
“I think that masks have become controversial because people don’t like it,” he said. “They see it as an imposition on freedom, and we’ve had people at the top that have made it more divisive, and I think that has carried some sway across the country. And it has become divisive, and that is very regretful.”
The governor did say that he fully supports businesses that choose to enact mask or vaccine mandates, noting that “they have their businesses to protect.”
He also spoke of his regret for the more than 7,000 Arkansans who have died from the virus. At the point this spring when the state of emergency had lifted, vaccines seemed poised to lead the state out of the grip of the pandemic.
However, August data shows that the number of Arkansans dying each day from COVID-19 was still around 25.58, the highest daily average since 38.45 in January.
There is also still a high level of vaccine hesitancy in the state. Less than 50 percent of Arkansans are fully vaccinated, and if all of the state residents currently listed as partially vaccinated move to the rolls of those fully immunized, the state will still only have around 62 percent of residents fully vaccinated.
The American Medical Association advises that between 70 to 85 percent of the population would need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. While that number seems a longshot for Arkansas at this time, Hutchinson remains hopeful that the state could reach that goal.
“My estimates say there are probably about 15 percent of the population that will never get the shot. They are adamantly opposed to it and they will not get it,” he outlined. “But that is 85 percent to work with. And even though some of them have still put it off, they might have questions about it, they are persuadable.”
Another hurdle facing Arkansas is a tight supply of ICU beds for COVID-19 patients. The state is expected to add another 54 of them this month, but the problem is they fill up, in some cases too quickly.
When asked about contingency plans, the governor said there are facilities ready to be put in place but noted the biggest challenge is having the right people.
“We always have backup plans, we could have field hospitals,” Hutchinson explained. “We could have parking lots with tents. There are things we can create and are available, but staffing is always a challenge when you’re competing with other states for the health care workers that you need.”
While he is firmly keeping his eyes on the situation in front of him, Hutchinson is also looking to the future and realizes the decisions he makes will be judged by history.
“I’m anxious for my decisions to be weighed, as well as other governors and the federal government,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll find that (while) some mistakes will be made, we acted on the information we had, and we made the best judgment we could.”