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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on the state of the pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today, the White House held a call with the nation's governors to discuss the current wave of omicron-fueled COVID infections, including record case numbers in parts of the country. President Biden joined the call. He spoke to reporters following the meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What did the governors tell you they're worried about?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, they're not - they didn't tell me they're worried. But they thanked me for the cooperation they're getting. They said they've gotten all that they need.

KELLY: Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas was on the call. He's also chair of the National Governors Association. And he joins us now.

Governor, welcome.

ASA HUTCHINSON: It's good to be with you today. Thank you.

KELLY: I've got to start with what we just heard from the president. Is he correct? Have you gotten all you need from the federal government?

HUTCHINSON: Well, he certainly assured us that if we need anything, just ask, and they will be responsive. And that's been the pattern. I complimented the White House coronavirus task force for their responsiveness. You know, there were some specific requests by governors that were made. One of them was that the isolation period be reduced for those that are tested positive. That way, they can return to work...

KELLY: And we saw a response to that just today. Yeah.

HUTCHINSON: Absolutely. And so that's a result of the communication with governors, letting the White House know the flexibility that we need. Of course, I made a point at - in complimenting the president that President Biden helped to depoliticize the response effort to COVID in his address to the nation last week. And that's important for us - that we work on this in a bipartisan, but also federal and state working together in our response efforts. And that's what I wanted to communicate to him in one particular area.

KELLY: Just to tease out a couple of things, that reference there to the move from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - new guidance out today, recommending a shorter isolation period for those with COVID-19, 10 days down to five if they're asymptomatic.

I also want to ask you about something I know you weighed in on on this call - the issue of rapid COVID tests and specifically whether President Biden's push to distribute 500 million free tests will dry up the supply chain for states. Did you get a satisfactory answer to that?

HUTCHINSON: I didn't get an answer to that, but I raised the issue. And it's an important issue to raise. Whenever they see the need for greater tests, you know, the temptation is to put a federal solution in there. I just wanted to make sure that the whole administration understood that if you're buying 500 million rapid tests, you're going to dry up the supply chain. It's going to make it more difficult for the states to put in their solutions.

KELLY: Although wouldn't some of those 500 million tests make their way to Arkansas and other - every other state?

HUTCHINSON: Well, that's the message I wanted to convey. Right now they plan a website so that people can order the rapid test. I think it's a much more efficient delivery system and more equitable if it reflects the variety of the different states. Get it to the states. Let us distribute those and get those out. Now, it's OK if they have that federal solution, but don't completely dry up the supply chain because we might want to put it in libraries as some governors have done or make it accessible in our local health units, so that citizens in different counties can go there and get the rapid tests...

KELLY: So...

HUTCHINSON: Make it easier.

KELLY: So you want to make sure you can - yeah - meet the needs as they stand in Arkansas. Speaking of where things stand in your state, the fully vaccinated rate in Arkansas, 51%, among the lowest vaccination rates in the country. What are you eyeing right now to try to change that?

HUTCHINSON: A consistent message that the vaccinations are critically important, both in the first shots, but also the booster shot. And so it's a consistent message that we're giving. It's education. The employers are helping in that. We're doing that in every way. And...

KELLY: Although, as you know, the messaging has been out there. I know you were on the road personally this summer, trying to talk to people. And I'm curious - you know, we've seen former President Trump, who's spoken up recently saying, get vaccinated, get boosted, it works, and he was booed by a crowd of his own supporters. What does that say to you about how entrenched the disinformation around vaccines is?

HUTCHINSON: Well, that's harmful - the disinformation. But as you pointed out, we've been messaging it for some time, and we've seen our vaccination rates go up. So as - particularly as omicron comes in, people understand the need for it. And so we are increasing our vaccinations every day. We need to accelerate that. But the only alternative to that messaging is to put in a mandate that everybody has to get vaccinated. We're not ready for that. That would create more resistance to it. And so we have to have that flexibility.

KELLY: Just a few - just 10 seconds, sir, but would you rule that out - a vaccine mandate in Arkansas?

HUTCHINSON: I don't think with the curves that we've been given with COVID that we can rule out anything down the road.

KELLY: OK.

HUTCHINSON: But it is not right for now.

KELLY: Governor Hutchinson, thank you.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

KELLY: Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.