Arkansas is facing a health care crisis impacting the health and safety of our families and children, our schools, our health care system and health care workforce, and our economy. With the progression of COVID-19 variants and Arkansas’s low vaccination rates, Arkansas’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are currently surging, with another surge expected this fall or winter. Our hospitals and health care workforce are at a breaking point. Arkansas’s hospital ICU beds are full, stretching hospitals’ ability to not only deal with the surge in COVID-19 cases but also with other health care emergencies of Arkansans not directly related to the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also imposing unprecedented mental health demands on our health care workforce, endangering both their short-term health and effectiveness and, potentially, the supply and availability of health care workers in the future. In short, the extraordinary demands being placed on our health care workers and hospitals are not sustainable and must be addressed by taking immediate steps to stop the surge in COVID-19 cases.
The pandemic is also increasing inequities for low-income families and Arkansans of color across a range of areas, including health, education, and economic well-being. These inequities will only continue to worsen the longer the pandemic lasts and as future surges arise and intensify. Addressing the pandemic and mitigating the likelihood of future surges is critical as part of a larger strategy for addressing the pandemic’s impacts on equity.
To deal with the current pandemic and future surges in COVID-19 cases, AACF therefore makes the following policy recommendations for our state policymakers:
- Given that public opinion towards the pandemic may be slowly changing (as evidenced by more people getting vaccinated during the recent surge), Governor Hutchinson should consider asking the Arkansas General Assembly to repeal or amend Act 1002 (which bans state and local government officials from mandating masks) and Act 977 (which bans state and local officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations). Repealing, or at least significantly amending Act 977 and Act 1002 are the strongest steps the legislature could take to deal with the current crisis and future surges in cases more effectively.
- If the Arkansas legislature can be convinced to reconsider Acts 977 and 1002 and give the Governor greater authority to deal with the pandemic and new surges in COVID-19 cases, Governor Hutchinson should consider using his new emergency powers to take immediate steps, such as new mask or vaccination mandates, to deal with the crisis.
- While taking immediate legislative and executive action will not solve the current surge in cases, which is already very advanced in its progression due to the more contagious Delta variant and our low vaccination rates, it would be a huge help in preventing a second surge during the fall or winter later this year and addressing future surges associated with new variants of the disease. We all want a healthy Arkansas. We want our kids to grow up healthy and safe, we want a stable health care system, and we want our schools to be a healthy place to learn. The COVID-19 pandemic is on such a massive scale, we cannot rely on individual Arkansans alone to defeat it. We need the Governor and the Legislature to take fast action to protect our state, and we need to collectively hold them accountable.
In addition to taking these legislative steps, AACF also recommends the following:
- Every legislator should go back to their home towns and districts and ask their constituents and local businesses to wear and require masks and to get vaccinated. While not a sufficient response to dealing with the current health crisis, calls by legislators back in their home districts would only strengthen Governor Hutchinson’s previous calls to wear masks and get vaccinated.
- State and local chambers of commerce and the business community should use their significant clout and resources to encourage their employees and local residents to wear masks and get vaccinated.
- We must do a better job of educating and urging local school officials that, while they currently can’t impose mask or vaccination mandates, they can nonetheless encourage their school personnel, teachers, families, and students to wear masks and get vaccinated.
- Arkansas needs a plan of action in place for when younger children can be vaccinated (currently only 12 and up can be vaccinated). This would include a plan for getting vaccines into the schools and a public education campaign plan to build public support for getting younger kids vaccinated.
- We must make equity a greater focus in plans to curb the pandemic and deal with the disparities that have worsened because of its impacts. This would include, at a minimum, making a greater focus in Arkansas’s spending of any funds under the American Rescue Plan.
- It’s time the federal government take more meaningful action in states like Arkansas that have not shown the political will to do what needs to be done to protect the health and well-being of its citizens. This is often done in natural disasters, so why not now? It could be time for a presidential executive order focused on states like Arkansas with low vaccination rates. The implications of states with local vaccination rates are national in scope and extend beyond the state’s borders, so the federal government needs to take targeted actions if we hope to curb the surge nationwide.
With the opening of Arkansas’s schools right around the corner, AACF makes the recommendations above to support the implementation of recommendations issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in their recent “COVID-19 Guidance for Safe Schools.” The AAP’s guidance should be required reading for all state and local policymakers and school officials. Among the principles and recommendations contained in the AAP’s guidance:
- The need for a continued focus on keeping all students safe since not all students will have the opportunity or be eligible to be vaccinated before the start of the school year
- The benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks in almost all cases at this stage in the pandemic given what is known about low rates of in-school transmission when proper prevention measures are used and the availability of vaccines for children ages 12 years and up
- Science and data must guide decisions about the pandemic and school COVID-19 plans
- All eligible individuals should receive the COVID-19 vaccine. This may require schools to collect COVID-19 vaccine information and for schools to require COVID-19 vaccination for in-person learning
- All students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use). The AAP recommends universal masking for the following reasons, which are worth repeating here:
- a significant portion of the student population is not eligible for vaccination
- protection of unvaccinated students from COVID-19 and to reduce transmission
- lack of a system to monitor vaccine status among students, teachers and staff
- potential difficulty in monitoring or enforcing mask policies for those who are not vaccinated
- in the absence of schools being able to conduct this monitoring, universal masking is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement, and compliance without the added burden of needing to monitor vaccination status
- possibility of low vaccination uptake within the surrounding school community
- continued concerns for variants that are more easily spread among children, adolescents, and adults
Arkansas can and must do better in taking steps to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and protect the health and safety of our children and families, protect the health and safety of our health care workers and our local hospitals, and our schools. Our future depends on it.