The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is in Arkansas and “spreading rapidly,” with the state facing an increase in active infections and a “very shaky sports season” if the rate of unvaccinated is not increased, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday (Dec. 21) during his weekly press briefing.
First detected in South Africa, the Omicron variant has surpassed the Delta variant in terms of active cases in many parts of the world, and is doing so in several large U.S. cities.
“As of December 20, 2021, Omicron has been detected in most states and territories and is rapidly increasing the proportion of COVID-19 cases it is causing,” noted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Results from scenario analyses indicate that current increases in Omicron cases are likely to lead to a national surge in the coming weeks with peak daily numbers of new infections that could exceed previous peaks; these scenarios may be realized as soon as January. In scenarios with lower immune evasion, a surge is still likely, but the peak could be lower and begin as late as April 2022.”
Gov. Hutchinson said the rate of Omicron infection in Arkansas may not be as high as the 73% of cases nationwide reported by CDC, but the variant is a real concern.
“It is clear that Omicron is in our state, it is spreading rapidly, and it will define our prevention efforts for the coming months. The good news is that we are the beginning of the Omicron variant in Arkansas, and so we should have a good Christmas with adequate hospital space,” the governor said during the briefing.
PUSH FOR VACCINATIONS, BOOSTER SHOTS
Active cases as of Tuesday were up 253 to 7,571, according to the ADH. The ADH also reported Tuesday that new cases rose by 955 to a cumulative total of 545,037, and deaths rose by 15 to a cumulative of 8,997. The ADH also reported Tuesday that 75 ICU beds available among the 1,133 in the state, down from 89 on Monday. The data also shows that 85.3% of deaths from COVID are among those unvaccinated.
The governor and Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero pushed the need for more Arkansans to get fully vaccinated against COVID, and to receive their booster shot as soon as eligible. The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) is reporting that 1,490,961 Arkansans, or 51% of the eligible population are fully vaccinated, with 62% having just one dose and only 14% receiving a booster dose after completing the two-dose regimen with Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Romero warned parents that the virus “can cause serious disease” in children, and urged them to get their children vaccinated.
Gov. Hutchinson said the vaccines are effective against “serious consequences in most costs and vastly reduces hospitalizations” even with Omicron infections. He said the relatively low vaccination rate in Arkansas is not ideal in pushing back against Delta or the new variant.
“Omicron has plenty of room among the non-vaccinated and the partially vaccinated to do its work,” he said.
Although “it is time to take (Omicron) seriously,” Gov. Hutchinson said he is not considering mask mandates, or renewing the public health emergency order. He also said business shutdowns are “absolutely off the table.”
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ (UAMS) Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health updated its COVID forecast Tuesday with ADH virus data through Dec. 12.
The models are forecasting an increase in new daily COVID-19 cases in the state, rising from 766 on Dec. 14 to an estimated 815 o Dec. 27. The UAMS model also shows Arkansans between ages 35 and 59 will have the highest number of COVID-19 diagnoses, with the estimate predicting 4,523 cumulative cases in the age group by Dec. 27.
“As Omicron becomes dominant, hospitalizations will begin to surge, as well, perhaps beyond levels we have previously seen. The question is, can we avoid the next surge? Perhaps, but the prospects are not good,” noted the UAMS report. “All COVID-19 immunity, whether natural or due to vaccination, wanes over time. Therefore, boosters are extremely important to increase immunity and may be the only way to avoid infection or serious disease on a population level. Getting vaccinated is crucial or those not vaccinated. For those vaccinated, getting boosted is essential. It may also become necessary for governments, businesses, and other places where people gather to implement face mask and social distancing mandates.”
Following are other key points of the updated model:
• The highest relative growth in COVID-19 cases will be in children 17 and younger – forecast to increase nearly 3% by Dec. 27, adding 2,673 cumulative cases.
• The model forecasts an increase in daily hospitalizations over the next 15 days, from 39 to 46 new daily admissions.
• The 15-day model is forecasting an average of five COVID-19 deaths per day for the next two weeks.
• The model forecasts around 2,673 new cases in children through Dec. 27, averaging 178 cases per day.
• All counties in Arkansas continue to have low vaccination rates compared to the national average.
“Arkansas will soon surpass the 10,000 COVID-19 deaths threshold, and 30,000 Arkansans soon will have been sufficiently ill with a COVID infection to have been hospitalized. Many of those 30,000 are suffering the effects of long-term COVID. The serious consequences of COVID-19 are preventable. To not be vaccinated or, if vaccinated, boosted is to play Russian roulette with this deadly virus,” noted the report.