Weekly Columns

One year after COVID-19 was first identified within the United States and our states and cities were forced to dramatically restrict routine activities, we are now all much more aware of how a transmissible disease like the coronavirus is capable of bringing our society and economic activity to a grinding halt. 

Thankfully, we have also learned that Americans motivated to find solutions to complex problems can do extraordinary work under immense pressure to deliver breakthroughs and remarkable innovation. That is precisely what happened as pharmaceutical companies, with the full support of the federal government, researched and developed COVID-19 vaccines in record time – just under a year. Operation Warp Speed, as the effort was known, truly was a game changer.

Now, three different vaccines are on the market and getting into the arms of Arkansans and Americans across the country.

We know that widespread vaccination against this strain of the coronavirus is going to be critical in our ability to return to normal life. That effort began to take shape early this year and continues to build momentum and clarity, with more Arkansans being vaccinated each day.

The good news is Arkansas has received over one million vaccine doses and has administered over 60 percent of the shots. The number of eligible Arkansans is also expanding. I share the same encouragement of many others upon learning our loved ones and neighbors are rolling up their sleeves, as I did, to protect themselves and help beat this pandemic. 

We are particularly getting buy-in from our vulnerable populations. The Arkansas Department of Health reports that roughly half of all Arkansans over age 70 have now received at least one shot of the vaccine. 

Now is the time to double our efforts and motivate those eligible to get vaccinated. Fortunately, opportunities to do so are increasing.

I recently attended a mass vaccination clinic at J.B. Hunt’s headquarters in Lowell sponsored by the Northwest Arkansas Council. It was reassuring to see such high demand – over 3,000 doses were administered – and confidence in the safety and necessity of the COVID-19 vaccines. Arkansans all across the state, in rural, suburban or urban areas, must continue to have access to the inoculation.

One model for successful vaccine deployment has come from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Last month, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing to examine the status of that effort at which I praised department officials and staff in Arkansas for their committed work to administer the vaccine. 

At the same hearing, I mentioned hearing from Natural State veterans about their desire to have their loved ones and caregivers vaccinated. When VA officials shared with me that new statutory authority would be required in order to do that, I teamed up with VA Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) to provide a solution. I’m pleased to have worked in a productive, bipartisan manner to introduce the Strengthening and Amplifying Vaccination Efforts to Locally Immunize all Veterans and Every Spouse (SAVE LIVES) Act in recent days.

I appreciate the input from Arkansas veterans and the support of my colleagues to meet the moment and craft legislation to allow the VA to get shots in more arms. This sensible approach to address concerns of veterans while also vaccinating more Americans, more quickly is one I am hopeful Congress will support.

The mobilization of Arkansas’s vaccination program, led by Governor Hutchinson and retired Arkansas National Guard Col. Robert Ator, is making important headway. As are the VA programs serving Arkansas veterans.

Let’s all do our part to help make them an even bigger success. If we do, we will hasten the end of the pandemic’s grip on our lives and strengthen our own health.