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Arkansas Governor Hits The Road To Combat Vaccine Hesitancy

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The coronavirus is spreading rapidly in several parts of the country, which sounds like something that I would have read back in July 2020. But it is July 2021 now, and vaccines have been widely available in this country for about three months. That said, new daily cases are up nearly 70% in just one week. The reason - the highly contagious delta variant is infecting a lot of unvaccinated Americans. That's certainly been the case in Arkansas, the state which now has the highest number of new COVID cases. Just 35% of the state's population is fully vaccinated, and that has prompted the state's Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, to hit the road to try and convince people in person to get vaccinated. Governor Hutchinson joins us now.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ASA HUTCHINSON: Great to be with you. Thanks for the opportunity.

CHANG: Great to have you with us. So before we dive into what you've been hearing from people about why they are not getting vaccinated, I did mention that Arkansas is leading the country in new COVID cases. What else are you seeing in your state that's causing you concern - anything else?

HUTCHINSON: Well, of course, when you have new cases, it leads to a higher rate of hospitalizations. And so we're having to watch that very carefully. They're crowded, the emergency rooms are. And it's both the COVID patients, but it's also all of the other illnesses and emergencies that pop up in the normal course of life. And that's been put off. So we have a challenge just like the rest of the country. And quite frankly, you know, this this delta variant - the longer it hangs around, the easier it is to give positive results to somebody who has been vaccinated. And so the key is vaccination. But we've got to put an end to this COVID variant as soon as we can.

CHANG: And are you considering imposing any new restrictions now like mask mandates or limiting large, packed crowds?

HUTCHINSON: So the key thing is that people have the information to make good decisions. It's not going to be about what the government tells them to do. It's going to be about the concern that they have on the increase in cases. In fact, since I started my community COVID conversations and the cases have gone up, we've had a 40% increase in the vaccination rate in Arkansas. So they learned. They see what's happening. And no one is taking a casual approach to it because of the seriousness that comes with that delta variant.

CHANG: I want to talk about these conversations. First of all, I'm just curious. Why did you believe that doing this face to face, going around your state personally to make the case for vaccines - why did you think that would make a difference, the face-to-face personal touch?

HUTCHINSON: Well, because the government telling them what to do loses its impact after a while. And so we had to get out in the community. And it was something that - I didn't know whether it would work or not, but I wanted to try it.

CHANG: Yeah.

HUTCHINSON: And I've been to seven cities. We've had incredible conversations. And the key has been that the anti-vaxxers actually show up, and they express their conspiracy theory or their concerns. And then somebody from the community stands up and says, well, let me tell you what it did in our family and how important it is to get the vaccination. And so it is a conversation in the community, and the trust in people in the community is really making a difference. I'm just bringing them together.

CHANG: That's interesting. It's not just a conversation with you. It's a conversation with other community members. And as these conversations are unfolding, as people are explaining why they don't want to get vaccinated right now, what are the reasons specifically that they are expressing?

HUTCHINSON: Well, you've got, you know, probably 15 to 20% that's not going to be persuaded to get the vaccine. They are hardcore. They've believed in the theories. They actually start talking about bioweapons versus vaccine. They're trying to even change the terminology. But there's a large segment beyond that that have just been hesitant. They want more information. They're nervous about it. They want to make sure they understand the side effects.

And that's where these community conversations are very, very effective in educating the community, letting them listen to each other. They're medical professionals. They're pastors or people with experience with COVID. You know, one objector stood up and went through the reasons he didn't want to get the vax. And I said, do you believe in COVID? And he said, yes, but I'm not afraid of it. And then someone else stood up and said, well, I lost two relatives because of COVID. And so that...

CHANG: And did that person's mind to get vaccinated?

HUTCHINSON: No, but it might have changed two or three other people's mind to get vaccinated. And we see the minds change as we have these conversations.

CHANG: What about the conspiracy theories? Like, how do you refute something like a theory about bioweapons? What do you do with that?

HUTCHINSON: Well, the only way you can do it - and this is true through history - is to refute it with facts and the truth. And it works. You can, for those that are open-minded, win that argument. But it usually comes from a doctor in the community or a nurse in the community or someone that the community understands and trusts.

CHANG: And how do you know that these conversations are directly leading people to change their minds about the vaccine? Are people coming up to you afterwards and saying, I'm going to get vaccinated now; I wasn't before this conversation started, but now I am?

HUTCHINSON: Well, we actually have a vaccine clinic at each of the town halls that we have. And so you can see them lined up. And these aren't large numbers, but you can see that minds are changed because of the information they got. More significantly, though, we've seen an increase in the vaccination rates since we started these conversations. Now, part of it can be attributed to the risk factor that's increased. But no doubt part of it is because of the community conversations. But it's also not just - it's beneficial because the community engages in it. And whenever we leave...

CHANG: Yeah.

HUTCHINSON: ...The community, they follow up with more action in the community and particularly getting out in the rural areas. So that's the difference we see.

CHANG: Well, if you don't turn this around, if you don't change enough minds in Arkansas about the vaccine, what's the contingency plan at this point? How are things going to look for your state?

HUTCHINSON: Well, we'll take it a step at a time. We want to get the vaccines out. We'll do everything that we can. If the delta variant or another variant pops up, we're going to have to do all we can to make sure that citizens are protected. And the challenge will be in our hospitals. The challenge will be in our schools. School's 30 days away. We've got to do everything we can to give a safe environment there. And that's why we're concentrating on the vaccines.

CHANG: That is Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. He's also chairman of the National Governors Association.

Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you - great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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