Gov. Hutchinson reinstates public health emergency in Arkansas, calls special session to address mask mandate ban for schools

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he is reinstating a public health emergency for the state of Arkansas as COVID-19 cases skyrocket and that he is bringing back the legislature for a special session to consider amending a state law banning mask mandates to allow for schools to set their own guidelines.

The news of the public health emergency came after Hutchinson announced another daily spike in cases, with 2,843 new cases reported in the last 24 hours. This moves the active cases count to 17,232 and the total case count to 382,569.

Hospitalizations were slightly down from the day prior, dropping by nine to 1,055, though the number of patients on ventilators jumped by 10 cases to 219.

Another 11 Arkansans died in the last day from the virus, bringing the total to 6,110 since the pandemic.

The governor also highlighted the difference with how the virus is hitting unvaccinated residents compared to those who have gotten vaccine doses.

State records show that since January first, unvaccinated patients make up 96.39 percent of new COVID-19 cases, 95.35 percent of hospitalizations and 97.4 percent of deaths.

He also noted that the pandemic is hitting Arkansas hospitals harder now than a year ago, showing that the percentages of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and patients on ventilators due to COVID-19 are all significantly higher now than those figures were in July 2020.

Hutchinson said the move to call for a review of Act 1002 to add an amendment allowing for school boards to have the authority to set their own mask plans was driven by the fact that Arkansas students under the age of 12 have no options when it comes to vaccinations.

He also said he was not sure whether or not there were enough votes in the state legislature to pass the amendment.

“It’s gonna be a heavy lift to get passage of this in the legislature,” he said.

The special session is planned to happen sometime next week.

State Rep. Johnny Rye, who represents parts of Poinsett and Mississippi counties voted for Act 1002, but now said he would support Hutchinson’s push to amend it.

“At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do, but we were looking ahead thinking that the people in our state were actually going to take part in the shots,” Rye said.

But Rye said he’s already been inundated with emails from parents who oppose any kind of mask mandates and also questions if there will be enough support in the legislature to change the law.

“I see a big fight coming on next week,” he said.

The governor noted that his legal counsel has informed him that he cannot change the ban on a mask mandate under the new public emergency declaration.

Vaccinations continue to climb in Arkansas, with 1,053,989 people in the state fully immunized, an increase of 2,855. Another 297,266 Arkansans are partially immunized.

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