Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday announced plans to call a special session of the Arkansas Legislature to ask lawmakers to reconsider a recently-enacted state law that prevents schools, municipalities and state agencies from requiring mandatory face coverings designed to protect citizens and students from COVID-19.
The governor said he is requesting that lawmakers specifically alter the language of the bill that takes away the ability of local school districts to make the decision to require face coverings based on what is happening in their communities.
“I will be calling a special session of the legislature most likely next week to amend Act 1002 to give local school boards and local decision makers the authority to make a decision for the public health…of their entire school environment,” Hutchinson said.
The governor said that president Pro Tempore of the Senate Jimmy Hickey Jr. and Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepard indicated to him that getting the legislature to alter the bill as requested would be a “heavy lift.”
“I have confidence that as the legislature looks at this that they will understand that, one, it’s a conservative principle to utilize local decision making, and not everything fits state wide, and secondly, that this is necessary really for providing local school boards the ability to protect those most vulnerable young people 12 and under as they go to school.”
Hutchinson pointed out that hospitalizations of younger people, including those under 12, have increased with the rise of the more contagious delta variant in the state.
The governor said 24 children are currently hospitalized at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, with five of those children currently in ICU, and two requiring a ventilator, he said. None of the children currently hospitalized have been vaccinated, he said, and 12 of the children currently hospitalized are under 12 years of age and not eligible to be vaccinated.
The governor said he will not issue another statewide mask mandate, but specifically would like to see the law modified in consideration of children who are too young to be vaccinated.
“There will be no statewide mask mandate imposed by me, and the legislature of course has made that clear as well,” he said. “This is not a debate about mask mandates for those who can make their own decisions and have means to get vaccinated. This is a discussion about the school environment where schools can make decisions to add to the public health for their own school environment and for the children that they have a responsibility to protect.”
The governor on Thursday also announced the reinstatement of a statewide public health emergency in the state, effective for the next 60 days. That proclamation will have to be reviewed by the legislature, he said.
The declaration allows for health centers in the state to seek emergency assistance and staffing from other states, and also eases restrictions for retired health care professionals who would return to the field to help combat the pandemic.
Hutchinson also announced that he has asked the White House for federal assistance in the state to help evaluate hospital bed capacity issues, and the federal government will send a surge response team to the state to help maximize hospital space in Arkansas.
“We welcome that level of expertise that might be of assistance to us,” he said.
The Arkansas Department of Health announced that COVID-19 cases in Arkansas increased by 2,843 on Thursday.
Hospitalizations were down by 9, bringing the total number of patients hospitalized in the state to 1,055, the highest number recorded since January. There are currently 219 patients in the state on ventilators, up ten from the day prior.
The state also announced 11 new deaths on Thursday, bringing the total number of deaths in the state as a result of the pandemic to 6,110.
Hutchinson showed a graph during his press conference Thursday indicating that of the new cases announced since January, 96.39% have come from unvaccinated individuals. 95.3% of those hospitalized since then are unvaccinated, and 97.4% of the deaths recorded have come from the unvaccinated population.
There are currently 17,232 cases of COVID-19 considered active in the state, which includes those that have tested positive by both PCR and antigen testing methods. This number is up by nearly 10 times the amount reported June 7, when active cases dropped below 1,600 briefly.
There were 8,519 PCR tests and 1,893 antigen tests announced Wednesday.
The new cases bring the total cumulative count in Arkansas to 382,569 since the pandemic began.
The state announced that 10,717 additional doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, bringing the total number of doses given by the state to 2,322,861. The state lists 297,266 as partially immunized, and 1,053,989 individuals as fully immunized.
Arkansas continues to lag behind the rest of the country in vaccinations. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, Arkansas is ranked 48th with just 36% of the population being reported as fully vaccinated.
All Arkansans ages 12 and older are currently eligible for a vaccine.
Those who need assistance locating a vaccine can call 1-800-985-6030.
The top counties for new cases on Wednesday were Pulaski (381), Washington (209), and Benton (193).