LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that active cases of COVID-19 in Arkansas continue to decline as the state is preparing to start offering booster vaccine doses next week.

During his news conference, Hutchinson shared the latest data from the Arkansas Department of Health showing that there are currently 17,084 active cases in the state. The data also showed 1,544 new cases reported in the last 24 hours, moving the total case count for the state to 477,191.

The governor also reported that 36 new deaths were added to the state’s total of 7,334. He also discussed how the information did not mean 36 people died from the virus in the last day, but rather that the deaths were confirmed to be connected to the virus.

Hutchinson noted that after speaking with officials at the White House, he expects Arkansas to begin administering booster doses late next week.

The ADH information showed slight drops in the number of patients hospitalized by COVID-19, going down by 16 to 1,097 currently in Arkansas. The number of patients on ventilators also went down by five to now sit at 281. The governor noted that Arkansas has 33 ICU beds currently available, 14 of which are open for COVID-19 patients.

Hutchinson began his COVID-19 discussion sharing his thoughts on the sweeping response plan outlined by Pres. Joe Biden last week.

The governor said he supported the authority of states to require vaccines in educational environments and of employers to mandate vaccinations on their own terms, as well as the president’s authority to issue a mandate for federal workers and the military.

He pushed back, however, on Biden’s plan to use regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to force employers of 100 workers or more to require vaccinations, noting that such moves were not consistent with past federal actions and saying that the measures would lead to greater vaccine hesitancy.

The ADH data showed that 6,771 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in the last day. There are currently 1,285,371 Arkansans fully immunized from the virus, with an additional 312,002 having partial immunity.

Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero again stressed the use of monoclonal antibodies as a proven treatment for COVID-19, saying the state had an adequate supply for treatment and encouraging anyone with a compromised immune system or anyone with a positive diagnosis of the virus to consider this treatment.

Both Hutchinson and Romero also mentioned the increase in the availability of home testing kits for COVID-19, saying part of the way to prevent spread and keep cases down is to stay vigilant and test when necessary.

Education Secretary Johnny Key noted only three school districts in Arkansas are currently modifying their teaching plans due to the pandemic, and that schools in the state reported 1,300 fewer cases Monday than they had the prior week. He attributed the growing success in schools to district leaders’ efforts to use masks and improved ventilation.

Hutchinson started the briefing by discussing a development in the state’s rice industry, which represents nearly half of the total U.S. production.

The governor announced that Ralston Family Farms of Atkins became the first U.S. producer to sell long grain rice to China, with the first shipment arriving this past July.

This shift into such a large market could be huge for domestic growers, Hutchinson said, with rice exports taking up a fifth of future production in the U.S.