Governor warns of potential spikes in COVID cases, encourages vaccination
Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday urged unvaccinated Arkansans to get vaccinated in order to prepare for a potential wave of infections caused by the fast-spreading omicron variant, but he ruled out measures such as the reimposition of a warrant. statewide mask.
He said he saw no need to declare a public health emergency such as the one that had been in place for two months during the summer flare-up caused by the delta variant.
“In reference to mandates or shutting down companies, that is absolutely not an option,” Hutchinson said. “We are open. It is important that our children go to school. It is important that our businesses are not interrupted. They know how we can protect ourselves. They have the capacity to make decisions for the health of their place. working. “
He said he was preparing to take steps to increase the state’s hospital capacity, as he did last winter and during the summer, but hopes it won’t be necessary.
âThe risk is that we are in the bottom 10 states in terms of vaccination rates, so national prognosticators say this is a problem because it means 49% of our population is not fully vaccinated, and that is lots of room for omicron work, âHutchinson said.
If more Arkansans don’t get vaccinated, “it could mean that in January or February we could have a problem with hospital capacity,” he said.
âWe’ll be prepared for that in case we need to expand the hospital space,â Hutchinson said. “We expanded the hospital space last winter during rush hour, and we will be ready to do it again if necessary.
“We don’t want to do this because it costs a lot of money, but if we have to, we will.”
On Tuesday, an omicron case announced on Friday was still the only one confirmed in the state.
The actual number of cases caused by the variant, however, is unknown because only a portion of the samples from positive tests are sequenced to determine which strain caused the infection, and it may take weeks to get the results.
According to estimates from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Monday, omicron accounted for more than 73% of cases in the United States last week, with more than 92% of cases in an area including Arkansas, the Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
The first reports suggested that the omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant, which was previously dominant, and is better able to penetrate the immunity generated by previous infections and vaccinations.
Studies have shown that vaccines are still effective in preventing serious illnesses caused by omicron, and that a booster for those who are fully vaccinated reduces the risk of infection.
At his weekly state Capitol press conference, Hutchinson noted that the CDC’s estimate of omicron prevalence “was not particularly directed at Arkansas,” where he said the proportion of new cases caused by the variant is probably less than 92%.
âRegardless of the accuracy of the current estimate, it is clear that omicron is in our state,â he added. âIt is spreading rapidly and it will define our prevention efforts for months to come. “
He said he met earlier today with his “COVID-19 winter task force,” made up of hospital leaders, health ministry officials and others, “to prepare for the future and initiate the necessary steps in case we need to expand “hospital capacity.
âWe should have a good Christmas depending on the adequate hospital space we have,â Hutchinson said. “It also gives us a window of opportunity to act before omicron reaches its peak in Arkansas.”
He noted that while 62% of Arkansians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, less than 51% are fully vaccinated and only around 14% have received booster doses.
“We want to increase our vaccination, our booster shots, so that in January we don’t have a hospital shortage, a staff shortage and we can make sure that we have adequate coverage for those who are sick at. because of that. âHutchinson said.
Hutchinson said he had also “challenged the Department of Health” to come up with a plan to increase the availability of home COVID-19 tests, but “supply chain issues” were a hindrance.
âAcquiring a sufficient amount of these home tests is a problem, and of course you have the cost problem as well,â Hutchinson said.
He said a federal initiative, announced Tuesday by President Joe Biden, to distribute 500 million rapid tests to the public free of charge will further reduce the supply available for a state-run effort.
Health Secretary Jose Romero said the omicron variant was likely behind a spike of 116 new cases Tuesday in Craighead County, the highest number of any county in the state.
About 80% of the cases were in Jonesboro and about half were in people aged 25 to 44. Infections in people under the age of 18 accounted for an additional 19%, he said.
âThese are the groups that don’t take the vaccine,â Romero said.
Like Hutchinson, he urged the Arkansans to get vaccinated now.
âThe omicron tsunami is approaching,â he said.
Statewide, he said about 75% of Arkansans aged 65 and over have been fully immunized and 52% have received booster doses, but rates are lower for younger groups.
Among the Arkansans aged 1924, for example, about 44% are fully vaccinated and less than 9% have received booster doses.
Fully vaccinated people “are still part of the group that is hospitalized, so we want that group to receive the third dose, this booster dose,” Romero said.
He said vaccination in children aged 5 to 11, who became eligible for a low-dose version of the Pfizer vaccine last month, has been “very slow”, with around 14% of children in this group having age having received at least one dose and 7% fully vaccinated.
With Arkansas Children’s Hospital and Arkansas Children’s Northwest in Springdale being the only two pediatric hospitals in the state, “we can easily, more than even the adult population, overwhelm the pediatric supply or the pediatric capacity of the state if we don’t get these kids vaccinated, âRomero said.
For gatherings during the holidays, he recommended people wear masks, limit those present to family members, ideally those who are vaccinated, and get tested for COVID-19 before traveling.
âMake sure that you don’t just bring your dish to the meeting, but that you don’t bring covid to the meeting,â Romero said.
Hutchinson also told the press conference that retired Arkansas Air National Guard Col. Robert Ator, who coordinated the Arkansas vaccine distribution, will return to his post as director of military affairs for the Arkansas. state department of commerce.
Lt. Col. Eric Kremers, deputy state surgeon for the Arkansas National Guard, who assisted Ator in his efforts, will take over Ator’s duties at the Department of Health, Hutchinson said.
Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock had five confirmed coronavirus patients on Tuesday, said Dr. Rick Barr, executive vice president and clinical and academic director of Arkansas Children’s.
Noting that a vaccine is not yet available for children under 5, he said he expects to see more children testing positive, although it is not known whether omicron will affect them. children as severely as the delta variant.
âWe know this is going to spread quickly,â Barr said of omicron.
“We know the children are going to be infected. We just don’t know if that will lead to emergency room visits and hospitalizations, yet.”
Dr Gerry Jones, chief medical officer at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, said he felt the hospital was ready for another potential outbreak of coronavirus. But he said CHI St. Vincent Infirmary, like many hospitals across the country, is struggling to have enough nurses.
Compared to before the pandemic, they now use more traveling contract nurses to help make up for open positions, he said.
He said he would encourage anyone who has ever been infected with the coronavirus to get vaccinated and receive a booster when they are eligible.
He said the hospital is also strongly encouraging staff to receive booster shots.
There is no guarantee that the natural immunity obtained from infection with the delta variant will be a good protection against omicron, he said.
In Jonesboro, St. Bernards Medical Center is not making any major operational changes in response to the new variant, spokesman Mitchell Nail said on Tuesday.
âWe are confident in our ability to manage the omicron,â he said.
“For us, the main thing right now is to encourage people to get vaccinated.”
The hospital, he said, has been operating at around 90% of its capacity or more in the past few months.
The hospital had 45 to 50 coronavirus patients, more than a dozen of whom were in an intensive care unit, Nail said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said on Tuesday she had signed a lawsuit challenging the requirements for Head Start teachers, staff and volunteers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and for children aged 2 and up to more wear masks.
âPresident Joe Biden is continuing his federal politics and this time he’s reaching Arkansas classrooms,â Rutledge said in a press release.
âRequiring vaccines for every volunteer and teacher, and masks for two-year-olds is flagrant excess by the federal government. “
According to the release, the program provides educational and related services to low-income families of preschool children.
Arkansas has 177 Head Start locations for children ages 3 to 5 and 130 Early Head Start locations for infants to age 3, Rutledge said in the release.
The lawsuit was filed by 23 state attorneys general on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Monroe, Louisiana.
In their latest forecast report, released Tuesday, researchers at the University of Arkansas’ Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health for Medical Sciences said that omicron “has the potential to create a major crisis in hospital systems. and state emergency response, âas well as the state economy.
In the UK, where omicron is dominant, COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have reached record levels, the researchers noted.
They said they often used the country as a barometer for Arkansas.
“If the barometer turns out to be good, we should expect another substantial increase in the state from mid-January or early February, driven by both the Delta and Omicron variants,” the researchers wrote. .
“As Omicron becomes dominant, hospitalizations will also start to increase, possibly beyond the levels we’ve already seen.”
They said vaccines and boosters are essential in preventing serious illnesses and infections.