Arkansas makes food plant workers eligible for vaccine

Andrew DeMillo
The Associated Press
Gov. Asa Hutchinson gives a COVID-19 update from the State Capitol in November. Workers at Arkansas' poultry plants and other food manufacturing facilities are now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, Hutchinson said Tuesday, in a move that opens up access to the vaccine for an additional 49,000 people.

LITTLE ROCK — Workers at Arkansas' poultry plants and other food manufacturing facilities are now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday, in a move that opens up access to the vaccine for an additional 49,000 people.

Hutchinson made the announcement as state health officials reported the first case in Arkansas of someone infected with United Kingdom variant of the virus.

Arkansas has already made the vaccine available to people at least 65 years old, teachers, health care workers, law enforcement, and nursing home employees and residents.

Hutchinson, a Republican, said the state later this week will receive 24,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one shot.

He also noted that earlier in the pandemic the state saw spikes in cases connected to some processing facilities and that food plant employees work in close proximity each other.

"They're obviously an essential worker, but in addition, they're an exposed worker because of that," Hutchinson said.

The Arkansas Department of Health Tuesday reported Arkansas' virus cases rose by 440 to a total of 322,949 since the pandemic began. The state's COVID-19 deaths rose by four to 5,254, while hospitalizations dropped by 25 to 416.

Arkansas State Health Secretary Jose Romero said he couldn't provide more details on the variant case, but he and Hutchinson said they weren't surprised there was one in the state now. Hutchinson said he would have moved forward with his decision last week to lift nearly all of the state's virus restrictions if the variant had been detected, saying he assumed it was already in the state.

Hutchinson is set to decide at the end of this month whether to lift the state's mask mandate.

The governor also announced that the state will hold five vaccine clinics next week and will set up a toll-free number for people to find vaccine clinics. The department said 652,702 of the roughly 1 million vaccine doses the state has received have been given so far.