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Governor Hutchinson talks about plans for American Rescue Plan funds.

Anxious Arkansas parents hoping to secure COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 12 and up have just a tiny bit longer to wait. Governor Hutchinson announced Tuesday that we’re still waiting on guidance from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) before 12- to 15-year-olds can roll up their sleeves for a first shot of the Pfizer vaccine that’s been cleared for use in adolescents.

The advisory committee, chaired by Arkansas’s own Dr. José Romero, is scheduled to meet on this issue tomorrow. In the meantime, Hutchinson said parents can go ahead and start scheduling appointments, keeping in mind that only the Pfizer version of the vaccine is cleared for use in young people (the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson versions of the vaccine are available in Arkansas but are not yet approved for young people). Call Arkansas’s COVID hotline at 1-800-803-7847 and real people will help you figure out the closest pharmacy or clinic where Pfizer shots are available.

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“By the end of today we will have Pfizer vaccine in every county in the state. We’re expecting and hoping to have guidance from ACIP by Thursday to allow us to start working those,” said Gen. Robert Ator, coordinator of Arkansas’s vaccine rollout efforts. Ator invited school districts to reach out if they want help setting up on-site shot clinics for students.

While this is great news for nervous moms, it’s unclear whether opening up vaccines for this new group will bolster Arkansas’s lackluster overall vaccination rates. While the national goal is to have 70% of Americans vaccinated by this summer, Arkansas is aiming lower. Hutchinson said he hopes to convince 50% to get the shots.

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“We’re making steady progress,” he said, noting that the state administered 9,000 doses in the past 24 hours.

Arkansas logged 233 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, but the overall number of active cases was down from Monday. 

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Hutchinson announced he’s forming a new steering committee to oversee federal money coming our way to offset economic impacts of the pandemic. Arkansas is set to receive $5 billion as part of the American Rescue Plan. Much of that is going directly to cities and counties, but $1.57 billion is going straight to Arkansas state government. The new steering committee will ideally coordinate among state and local entities to spend the money efficiently.

The 14-member committee will include six state legislators: Sens. Bill Sample (R-Hot Springs), Keith Ingram (D-West Memphis) and Ron Caldwell (R-Wynne), and Reps. Jeff Wardlaw (R-Hermitage), Fran Cavenaugh (R-Walnut Ridge) and Ken Ferguson (D-Pine Bluff). It will also include eight of Hutchinson’s cabinet members or their designees. Larry Walther, director of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, will lead the committee.

While the CARES steering committee charged with allocating federal money sent our way in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic had to act quickly, Governor Hutchinson said he hopes to the American Rescue Plan committee will be “methodical and not rushed,” and that they will focus on capital investments including boosting cybersecurity and expanding broadband access throughout the state.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families has some good ideas for the new committee to consider, including increased investment in early childhood education and more help for struggling families. Those ideas didn’t get a mention at Tuesday’s briefing, but the governor did mention tax cuts a few times.

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Walther cautioned that the plan for this $5 billion in federal funds likely won’t be ready for a good while. Arkansas has until Dec. 31, 2024, to spend it.

“We have time to study it, to do it right. I assure you that will be my objective, to make sure we do it right so that it benefits the state of Arkansas and the citizens of Arkansas,” Walther said.