Just a few months ago, Arkansas seemed to have turned a corner in the COVID-19 pandemic. After a winter in which new daily case counts were routinely in the thousands, new cases in May typically numbered no more than a couple hundred a day.
The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 dropped from more than 1,300 in early January to fewer than 200 on most days in May. It appeared that we were beginning to get the virus under control and seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
But things have changed. As I write at the close of July, Arkansas leads the nation in average new daily cases per capita, with new case counts once again routinely in the thousands. More than 1,000 Arkansans are hospitalized with COVID-19. Our hospitals are filling up, our health care workers and supplies are being stretched thin, and the threat of our health care system being utterly overwhelmed is again a reality.
On July 29, Gov. Asa Hutchinson responded to the worsening crisis by issuing a new public health emergency declaration. How did this happen? The two main culprits are the delta variant and Arkansas’ low vaccination rate.
When viruses enter our bodies, they attach to our cells and trigger a process known as viral replication, in which new copies of the virus are created. This is how viruses reproduce. Over time, small copying errors called mutations occur, resulting in new strains of the virus, or variants. Several variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have emerged since the pandemic began, but one in particular, the delta variant, is so highly contagious that in early July it overtook the original virus to become the dominant strain in the United States.
Fortunately, the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against the delta variant. But in Arkansas and a few other states, vaccine hesitancy is a serious obstacle to getting protected. At this writing, barely more than a third of Arkansans are fully vaccinated, one of the worst vaccination rates in the country. This leaves most Arkansans unprotected against a version of the virus that is far more contagious than the version that drove the high numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths we experienced in 2020 and early 2021.
Adults can choose whether or not to get protected from the virus. But no vaccine is currently available for children under age 12, so they must depend on the adults around them to be protected. Arkansas’ low vaccination rate is making our children unnecessarily vulnerable; hospital workers say the current COVID-19 surge is affecting more young people now than at any point previously in the pandemic. And sadly, at least two children in Arkansas have died from COVID-19, one in July and one late last year.
With school starting in a couple of weeks, it is imperative for parents to get their kids and themselves vaccinated as soon as possible if they have not already done so. It takes weeks to achieve full immunity after vaccination, so parents should not wait until the last minute.
The most persuasive arguments for getting protected may be the personal stories of Arkansans whose lives have been impacted by COVID-19. I’m thinking of people like Rachel Maginn Rosser, a Fayetteville nurse, who told reporters that her 63-year-old mother, Kim Maginn, declined to get vaccinated and then lost her life to COVID-19.
Or Arkansan Tate Ezzi, who said he and his wife chose not to get vaccinated because they believed misinformation about the vaccines, then lost their unborn child when they caught the virus. I’m thinking also of Angela Morris, who said she did not get her 13-year-old daughter, Caia Morris Cooper, vaccinated because she thought COVID-19 was not very dangerous, then was horrified when Caia became critically ill and had to be placed on a ventilator at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
If you have doubts about getting vaccinated, I urge you to talk to your doctor. I don’t have the space here to address every concern about the vaccines that I’ve heard raised, but these seem to be among the most common:
• Speedy development. The vaccines were developed within a year of the virus being first identified — a process that in the past has taken years — so some people mistakenly believe that corners must have been cut. The reality is that scientists had been working on the new mRNA vaccine science since the Ebola outbreak in 2014. In fact, an mRNA Ebola vaccine was approved by the FDA in December of 2019. This accumulated knowledge, combined with advances in the sequencing technologies used to profile viruses, enabled scientists to quickly profile the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and get vaccines into testing. The Janssen vaccine uses an older technology but the same sequencing profile.
• No full FDA approval. The vaccines have received emergency-use authorization, which is temporary, but have not yet been granted full FDA approval, which lasts indefinitely. But for a vaccine to receive either designation, it must meet rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality. All vaccines available in the United States were required to go through Phase I (safety), Phase II (effectiveness) and Phase III (large-scale) studies. And continued monitoring of the COVID-19 vaccines in use have shown them to be safe. Serious side effects have been extremely rare, whereas more than 600,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
• Distrust of mRNA vaccines. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which means that they use messenger RNA to teach our cells how to recognize the virus and trigger an immune response. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, where our DNA, or genetic material, is kept. This is a new virus that our bodies have never seen before; getting an mRNA vaccine is like showing your cells an FBI most-wanted poster of the virus and saying, “Watch out for this dangerous character!” Once the message has been delivered, the mRNA breaks down and is flushed out of your system.
• Fears about vaccines and pregnancy. Claims that the vaccines are dangerous for pregnant women have been circulating on the internet, but they are unsupported. Although no pregnant women were selected for the clinical trials conducted prior to authorization, monitoring of women who became pregnant during the trials and information collected since the vaccines went into use have found no safety concerns for pregnant women or their fetuses.
In addition to going on the offensive against the virus by getting vaccinated, we should redouble defensive efforts including social distancing, frequent handwashing and mask wearing in public. As the Centers for Disease Control Prevention stated in recent guidance, even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas where transmission is substantial or high, which includes all of Arkansas.
As a pediatrician, I urge schools to do all they can to protect our children — many of whom currently are not eligible for vaccines — when classes resume this month. We know that masks, handwashing, ventilation and social distancing are effective. Unfortunately, the Arkansas General Assembly chose to handcuff public schools by passing a law prohibiting government entities from requiring masks, but hopefully the governor and lawmakers will remove that restriction for schools, perhaps by the time you read this. If not, kids, parents, teachers and school leadership may be in for a worse fall than last year.
We have the tools to defeat COVID-19. We have to use them. If we do not, we will see our health care system overrun, which will affect all who need care, COVID-related or otherwise. We will see more avoidable deaths of Arkansans, including children. And perhaps most disturbing of all, we will give the virus time to mutate into a new variant, possibly one that is more deadly — and possibly one that can evade the vaccines — leaving us all vulnerable.
Joe Thompson, M.D., M.P.H., is president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. He was Arkansas’ surgeon general under Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe.