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Fayetteville board discusses vaccine hesitancy, mayor says city will keep mask mandate



FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The city’s Board of Health will look at ways to address covid-19 vaccine hesitancy as the vaccine becomes available to more groups.

Stephen Boss, professor of environmental dynamics and sustainability at the University of Arkansas, said Wednesday during the board’s meeting that national polls suggest 25% of the population doesn’t want to get vaccinated. He added no one younger than 16 can get vaccinated and vaccines may not be effective for about 5% of people who receive them.

Washington County had 16,283 residents fully vaccinated against covid-19 as of Tuesday, while another 31,224 had received the first of two doses, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

The county has a population of 181,075 residents 16 and older, so about 9% of that group have been fully vaccinated while about 17% are halfway there.

The Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are being used in Arkansas. The Pfizer vaccine is approved for people 16 and older while the Moderna and J&J vaccines are approved for people 18 and older.

The state began allowing anyone in its Phase 1-B, which includes people who work in food manufacturing and grocery stores among other groups, to get vaccinated starting this week. People in Phase 1-C, which includes groups such as people ages 16-64 with underlying medical conditions and restaurant workers, aren’t yet eligible to get vaccinated.

Dr. Marti Sharkey said although health officials are seeing many people want to get the vaccines early on, they need to get a jump on messaging to address vaccine hesitancy.

“My fear is that we plateau at less than 50% vaccination rate in the community and that would make it a difficult summer — not what it could be — which is why messaging is so critically important,” Dr. Hershey Garner said.

The University of Arkansas began allowing people to make online appointments Tuesday and had 600 appointments within an hour, said Dr. Huda Sharaf, medical director at the university’s Pat Walker Health Center.

“Vaccine hesitancy on our campus is minimal,” she said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said the state’s mask mandate will end March 31 if certain public health goals are met. Mayor Lioneld Jordan pointed out at Wednesday’s meeting that the city’s ordinance requiring masks, which was passed in June before Hutchinson’s mask mandate, will remain in effect even if the state’s mandate is lifted.

“Until the City Council repeals that, it’s going to be in place no matter what the governor does,” Jordan said.

The ordinance is geared toward requiring businesses to require masks, said Kit Williams, city attorney.

“I do not think it is medically correct or ethically correct to remove the mask mandate until we are through 1-C, until those high risk populations are vaccinated,” Sharkey said.

Likewise, Sharaf said March 31 is too early to remove the mandate, especially given schools’ spring breaks, when people tend to travel and mingle. The mandate should last at least through April, she said.