Arkansas started out the new year with a record-breaking 4,304 new cases of Covid-19, nearly double the recent daily average, and accompanied by record hospitalization rates. There were 3,711 people in the state who had died from the disease, according to the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH).
Covid-19 vaccines started becoming available late in 2020. In Arkansas, vaccines are first being offered to residents of long-term care facilities, healthcare workers, and first responders.
Dr. Dan Bell, who practices at Eureka Family Clinic and is co-founder of the ECHO Clinic, had the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine in late 2020 and said it was a breeze.
“Washington Regional has been vaccinating their people,” Bell said. “I could hardly even tell I got the shot. I barely had a sore arm. I found it very tolerable and had no side effects. The thing we should say over and over is the risk of taking the vaccine is very low. The risk of getting Covid-19 is extremely high in comparison. The benefit-risk tilts very strong towards taking the vaccine.”
Bell said it is feared that the high number of cases reported in early January are not the worst that will be seen.
“The post-holiday period is the time historically we have always had an upswing in influenza outbreaks,” Bell said. “Usually, our influenza spike was in late January. You would think Covid would spike around January 20, but the highest case numbers may be beyond that. Cases may go up higher in February.”
The state is distributing the Moderna vaccine in Carroll County through Economy Drug in Berryville. Bell said the pharmacy was expected to receive 200 doses of the vaccine around Jan. 5 with 150 being committed to healthcare providers. About 60 volunteers at ECHO Clinic were scheduled to be vaccinated at a drive-through clinic at ECHO on Jan. 7.
“These are volunteers who see patients face-to-face,” Bell said. “This will add to the safety of our volunteers. In another month, we will have the second shot. The vast majority of our staff is willing and able to take vaccine. There are some with allergies to flu shots who want to wait a while. They want to study it more, which is understandable. We have generally had very good acceptance of and willingness to take the vaccine.”
National health authorities have said that if enough Americans get vaccinated, the country could be back to normal by fall. Opinion polls have shown only about 60 percent of people definitely plan to get vaccinated.
A new variant of Covid-19 that is more contagious has been found in more than 30 countries. Bell said it might not be more deadly, but a strain that is more infectious means more people could get Covid-19. He said the bottom line is people need to get the vaccine and still take protective measures such as masks, social distancing, handwashing, and avoiding groups.
Jonathan Berman, Ph.D., assistant professor at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University, said while he is slightly concerned about vaccine resistance, that is a solvable problem.
“A lot of people have said they’re skeptical or concerned about the measles vaccine, but usually we hit targets,” Berman, who had Anti-Vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement, published recently, said. He advocates a vaccine confidence project.
“Right now, things are a bit disjointed, but there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of governments to build vaccine confidence with a unified but targeted message that takes into account the particular concerns of many different groups,” Berman said.
Some concerns arise from the fact the vaccines were developed in a much shorter time period than normal, and others feel there may have been political pressure that outweighed science in approving the vaccines. Another issue is some of the new vaccines, including those from Moderna and Pfizer, use a process for developing the vaccine called recombinant DNA technology. Berman said while this is a “new” technology in the sense that it hasn’t been approved in humans, it has gone through a lot of animal testing, and the mechanism is very well understood.
“So far, the Pfizer vaccine was tested in about 22,000 people and the Moderna vaccine in many more,” Berman said. “There were very few side effects, and they weren’t of particular concern. Fever, sore arm, fatigue, or headache are all preferable to death.”
Berman said anti-vaxxers will probably raise alarms about events that are rare such as fainting, which sometimes happens to people who are nervous around needles.
Disinformation campaigns about vaccines have been common for decades. Berman said spreaders of misinformation are skilled at tailoring their messages to particular communities.
“What’s been disappointing is that rather than respond to the misinformation campaigns with a vigorous defense of science, we’ve been getting very mixed messages from state and federal governments, which have only fed the popularity of misinformation campaigners,” he said.
Ultimately, Berman expects people will be motivated to vaccinate by the opportunity to return to school, work, and travel.
After the 1-A group is vaccinated, those in schedule 1-B will be offered the vaccine. Each state determines the vaccination priorities. In Arkansas, 1-B is likely to include people 70 or older and some categories of essential workers, according to Arkansas Department of Health spokesman Gavin Lesnick.
“We expect to have information on that soon, but it may be a few weeks before we transition into 1-B,” Lesnick wrote in an email Jan. 4.