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Trouble With the Vaccine

arkansas vaccine campaign
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson watches an ad featuring former NBA star Sidney Moncrief that encourages people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, at the state capitol in Little Rock, May 20, 2021. Andrew Demillo/AP Photo
  • Arkansas is seeing its highest spike in coronavirus cases in nearly five months.
  • The spread of the Delta variant has made it a new epicenter of the US outbreak.
  • But Arkansas health officials are still struggling to convince people to get vaccinated.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Few states have had a harder time vaccinating people than Arkansas.

Less than 43% of the state’s population has received at least one vaccine dose, and just 34% of residents are fully vaccinated – among the lowest vaccination rates in the US. That made the state a sitting duck for the Delta variant, which is significantly more transmissible than the original virus or other variants. As Delta spreads rapidly among unvaccinated people in the US, Arkansas and its neighbor, Missouri, have become the epicenter of the US outbreak.

The maps below, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show how Arkansas’ latest surge correlates with its low vaccination rate. Counties with at least 100 cases per 100,000 people (in blue) also have vaccination rates below 40% (in purple).

A map on the left shows counties where COVID-19 cases rates are above 100 cases per 100.000, a map on the right shows counties where vaccination rates are below 40%. Texas as greyed out on the map on the right as county-level vaccinatin data is not available.
Maps of the us show counties where case rate is over 100 per 100.000, and counties where vaccination rate is below 40%, as of July 2, 2021 CDC

Arkansas reported more than 1,200 new coronavirus cases on Friday – its highest tally in nearly five months. The state’s daily coronavirus cases more than doubled over the last two weeks, from around 290 to 600 cases per day, on average. Data compiled by Scripps Research’s tracker suggests that Delta may account for more than 80% of Arkansas’ new coronavirus infections. That’s among the highest shares of Delta infections in the country.

Hospitalizations have risen in the state as a result: Arkansas’ average is up 42% in the last two weeks, from around 270 to 380 hospitalizations per day.

The state’s health director, Dr. José Romero, blames the low vaccination rate on widespread vaccine hesitancy in rural areas.

arkansas health director
Arkansas Health Director José Romero. Arkansas Department of Health

Romero told Insider that the state’s health department arranged for essential workers to get access to shots at their places of work, but demand for the service was low. Even teachers have been reluctant to get their shots, he said: At most, 45% of teachers and staff at Arkansas schools have been vaccinated.

Now, the health department is planning to return to schools and workplaces to offer the shots a second time. Officials are also hosting town halls to address residents’ concerns about vaccine safety, since misinformation on social media has led people to think, falsely, that coronavirus vaccines might increase the risk of infertility.

Since May, Arkansas’ government has also been offering incentives for those who get vaccinated: $20 gift certificates for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission or $20 lottery tickets.

But if those efforts don’t pan out, there’s no backup plan.

“We’ve done everything we can,” Romero said. “We’ve made the vaccine available. We’ve gone the extra mile to make it pretty much on demand if you want it. We’ve made testing available all around the state through various means. I don’t think there’s anything else that we can do at this point.”

Many rural residents don’t see a need to get vaccinated

dugan's pub arkansas
Anna Barnard, left, wears a mask as she talks to Greg and Judy Robinson at Dugan’s Pub in Little Rock, Arkansas on May 11, 2020. Andrew DeMillo/AP

Access to shots may still be a problem in Arkansas, despite the state’s efforts. Rural communities are historically hard to reach through vaccination campaigns, and around 42% of Arkansas counties are rural. Research from Boston Children’s Hospital suggests that several Arkansas counties qualify as “vaccine deserts,” with the nearest COVID-19 vaccination site more than a 15-minute drive away.

But Romero doesn’t think that’s the issue.

“We really do have vaccine in every county in the state,” he said. “This is the home of Walmart, and Walmart is a federal partner. I say this tongue-in-cheek: You can’t swing a cat without hitting Walmart. They’re everywhere and they’re distributing the vaccine.”

Romero said he is more concerned about how difficult it has been to convince rural residents that the coronavirus is dangerous, even with the spread of Delta.

“There is a significant population within the state that still doesn’t believe this to be a major health threat,” he said. “They consider themselves not at risk because they’re healthy.”

arkansas football game covid-19
A sign at the Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the Georgia Bulldogs played the Arkansas Razorbacks on September 26, 2020. Brett Rojo/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Even within his own health department, Romero added, there are still employees “that are not believers in the vaccine.”

Arkansas has one of the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy in the country. As of June, the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 25% of the state’s population might be hesitant or unsure about getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Only three other states – Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming – had higher hesitancy rates.

Arkansas has also struggled to get people to return for their second shots. Romero said 15% of people who had received their first dose of either Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccine hadn’t gone back for their second as of two weeks ago. Romero said he thinks it’s because many residents were deterred by the side effects of their first dose.

That’s particularly concerning given that new research suggests partially vaccinated people are more vulnerable to symptoms from Delta. A study published Thursday in the journal Nature found that just a single dose of Pfizer’s vaccine was either weakly or not at all effective against the variant.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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