The Omicron variant that has become a major concern for public health officials is undergoing rigorous testing and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson expects to have many questions answered before Christmas.
How transmissible is the variant? Does Omicron make people sicker than previous strains of COVID-19? How do the vaccines that have been developed hold up against Omicron? These are mysteries Patterson expects science to solve in the next few weeks, he said in a Sunday (Dec. 5) interview on Talk Business & Politics.
“I think we’ll have pretty good answers to the unknown questions within the next couple of weeks, certainly before Christmas holiday,” he said. “There are a lot of unknowns. What we do know is that it is spreading globally. It’s now in the United States, it’s in Canada. It will eventually get to Arkansas I suspect before the next week or two is out and we’ll start detecting this variant here in the state of Arkansas. And because there’s so much uncertainty it’s difficult to know how to react.”
In the meantime, Patterson said the same precautions that officials have been urging on COVID-19 still apply – get vaccinated, wear a mask, wash hands, and maintain safe social distances. He warns that the Delta variant is still wreaking havoc in Arkansas.
“In Arkansas, the Delta variant is getting worse right now. And that’s really the thing that we need to be focusing on more today than anything else,” Patterson said. “The vaccines are nearly 100% effective in preventing death or severe illness caused by the Delta variant in people with normal immune systems. So the vaccine is still your number one ticket right now for safety here in Arkansas.”
Patterson also addressed the controversy surrounding UAMS’ push to mandate vaccines among workers. Federal requirements to keep Medicaid and Medicare funding have been in conflict with a new state law. State law prohibited vaccine mandates among public agencies, while a Biden administration rule required them to keep federal funds. A U.S. District judge has issued a stay in the federal requirement allowing time to sort through the legal morass created. Patterson said without Medicaid and Medicare funding UAMS would lose $600 million in revenue.
“For UAMS, we were caught between a rock and a hard place. Between state law that we respect and abide by and by the necessity of getting most of our clinical funding from CMS [Centers] for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The federal interim final rule precluded our participation in Medicare and Medicaid if we did not have and enforce a vaccine mandate. That would be $600 million off the top line for UAMS which would cripple us, essentially put UAMS out of business,” he said.
Patterson also updated on progress being made to advance UAMS’ effort to gain National Cancer Institute (NCI) status – a prestigious designation that opens up Arkansas for a huge amount of research funding as well as cutting-edge cancer treatments. He said he expects the application for NCI status to be ready to go as early as 2023.
Watch Patterson’s full interview in the video below.