Because at-home COVID-19 tests have become prevalent and most people do not report positive results to the Arkansas Department of Health, the high case numbers recently reported by the health department represent a significant undercount.
Reports are “just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the cases out there,” Jennifer Dillaha, director of the state Department of Health, said. “We recognize the limitations of the tests that are reported to the Arkansas Department of Health. However, they do help us understand the general trend.”
The ADH reports positive COVID-19 tests from the likes of clinics, hospitals and pharmacies.
The highly contagious omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, have led to an “unrelenting increase” in Arkansas illnesses, Dillaha said. The pair are now the most dominant variants nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Arkansas, cases will likely continue to increase, and Dillaha said she expects to see another surge of cases in the fall.
Arkansans should also be cautious of long COVID symptoms, said Ben Amick, associate dean for research at University of Arkansas Medical Sciences. Although there’s only been preliminary research into long COVID, Amick said some people may experience several months of cognitive problems, difficulty breathing and muscle aches. Others may lose their sense of smell and taste for an extended period.
Those who were asymptomatic with their initial infection may also experience these long-term effects, said Clare Brown, a UAMS associate professor who specializes in health care analytics. A key characteristic of long COVID is that the symptoms cannot be tied to anything else: sore throats that are not diagnosed with strep throat or other illnesses; nausea not tied to typical causes.
“From a research perspective, I think it’ll be important to look at that stuff over time in terms of quality of life and cost of care,” Brown said. “ If you’re continuously having symptoms, that’s going to impact how well you’re able to work and take care of your family. I think there’s a lot of potential implications that we don’t know yet.”
The continued push for vaccinations
COVID-19 illnesses have hit Arkansas in waves since March 2020. During a lull in cases, people have grown more comfortable in removing masks and meeting friends. Then a significant increase in cases follows, often because of virus mutation.
About 46% of Arkansans ages 5 and older have yet to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the ADH. A majority of the state’s residents, 77%, have not received a booster shot.
“That third dose, especially the first booster dose, does a lot to broaden the range of antibody types that the immune system produces as a result of vaccination,” Dillaha said. “This broadened range of antibodies provides superior protection against infection and severe illness.”
In Little Rock, At-large Director Joan Adcock has organized 13 city-sponsored vaccine clinics since the onset of the pandemic. The latest one will be held from 1-5 p.m. Saturday, July 9. In partnership with CHI St. Vincent, about 30 volunteers will help administer the Pfizer vaccine at the Southwest Community Center. Vaccinations will be available for free, and recipients will be given a $50 Visa rewards card per dose.
“Right now, we just kind of got our heads in the sand,” Adcock said. “We don’t understand how fast this thing is coming back.”
Both English and Spanish-speaking volunteers will be on site to help with the process.
Adcock said she expects about 400 at the clinic, and 575 gift cards are available. Federal stimulus money from the American Rescue Plan Act is funding the clinic. The city board earmarked $300,000 for COVID-19 care in Little Rock, more than half of which has already been spent.
“I know that some people would say that we shouldn’t pay people to do what they should be doing,” Adcock said. “At this time with gas prices like they are, and food prices like they are, I think it would just help people. This is really a boost to our economy, but a boost to helping the people who sometimes think that there’s no help out there for them.”
The “long haul”
Despite the increase in Arkansas case counts, hospitalization numbers have remained steady, a departure from previous surges. The rise in BA.5 and BA.4 infections has been gradual, whereas the delta and initial omicron variants showed “exponential increases and then decreases in a number of cases,” Dillaha said.
Hospitalization trends have mirrored the linear growth of case numbers, she said.
As time has passed, state officials have provided fewer detailed reports about the status of COVID-19 in Arkansas. Governor Hutchinson, who once hosted daily press conferences with health officials, hasn’t had a press briefing on the virus since April.
“People keep hoping that [COVID-19] is going to be more flu-like,” Amick said. “What we know about the flu and its evolution over time is that it becomes more infectious but less severe. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet with coronavirus.”
The ADH recommends that if a person tests positive with an at-home test, she needs to be isolated for five days and wear a mask for five additional days. A fully vaccinated individual who is exposed, but not positive, needs to wear a mask for 10 days. Someone who is not up-to-date on her vaccinations and exposed should follow the recommended protocol for a positive individual.
“I think the problem with coronavirus now is that it requires a change in behavior of the population to help manage the spread, and it requires the population to be vaccinated,” Amick said. “We’re kind of baked-in in Arkansas. We’re not going to see huge bumps in vaccination rates and behavior. The behavior that we’re changing is people thinking that it’s over. I think we’re in it for the long haul.”