LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas on Tuesday made the coronavirus vaccine available to nearly 1 million more people, expanding its eligibility to a wide category of people that includes food service workers, the incarcerated and people with certain health conditions that put them at higher risk.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the state was opening up the 1C phase of its vaccination plan, citing President Joe Biden's goal to have all adults eligible for the vaccine by May 1. Arkansas had previously made the vaccine available to people who are at least 65 years old and several other groups that included teachers and health care workers.
"It is important to move to 1C so that we can open up more and keep the demand coming for the vaccine to make sure there's not any gap, and to give everyone the best opportunity to get the vaccine who wants it and needs it," Hutchinson said at his weekly news briefing.
Others in the newly eligible category in Arkansas include essential workers in the energy, finance, legal and media sectors. It also includes the incarcerated or detained, as well as others living in high-risk settings such as group homes and college dorms.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said the state prison system will begin vaccinating inmates once it has completed staff vaccinations. The department will begin vaccinations with inmates identified as high risk due to age or certain health conditions.
Hutchinson also cited a slowdown in demand for the vaccine, particularly in rural parts of the state, as a reason for opening up eligibility further. The Department of Health said that nearly 864,000 of the 1.5 million vaccine doses allocated to the state have been given so far.
Hutchinson urged patience for people setting up appointments given the large number of people now eligible, but encouraged everyone who is eligible to get their shots.
"Wherever you are in the state, we travel, we go to ballgames together and if we're going to get to the more normal life, we need to have everyone vaccinated," the governor said.
Arkansas' virus cases rose by 396 to 327,456 total since the pandemic began. The state's active cases, ones that don't include people who have recovered or died from the virus, total 2,875. The state's COVID-19 deaths rose by 12 to 5,493 and hospitalizations increased by seven to 257.
Hutchinson said he would announce in the next couple of days whether he will veto a bill lawmakers sent him requiring the state to refund fines issued to businesses for violating the state's virus rules. Hutchinson repeated his opposition to the bill, which he called "ill-advised."
Hutchinson last month lifted most of the state's virus restrictions, including capacity limits for restaurants and bars. He plans to lift the state's mask mandate at the end of month if certain health goals are met.