Officials Monitoring for U.K. COVID-19 Variant in Arkansas

Suspicious specimens have been sent to the CDC for further analysis.

Dr. Jose Romero speaks at a pres conference
Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero speaks during the state's weekly pandemic update Jan. 19, 2021.

A COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom has been reported in 10 states. It has not yet been identified in Arkansas, but Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero said health officials are keeping an eye out for its arrival.

“The virus will eventually get here. It’s just a matter of time,” he said.

During yesterday’s weekly update on the pandemic, Dr. Romero announced the state has sent “suspicious” specimens to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have not come back as positive. Currently, there are 8 specimens awaiting analysis by the CDC.

“These strains are normal, they are variants,” Romero said. “They will arise during the course of a viral infection and because this is a pandemic, we can see variants throughout the world.”

Variants of the virus have been identified in Brazil and South Africa, but they have not yet made their way to the United States. The CDC predicts the U.K. variant, which is highly transmissible, will be the predominant virus in the U.S. by March. 

“It’s about 50 to 70 times more transmissible than the current virus in our environment, which means that we have a greater chance of infecting another individual if we are positive and we expose each other to the virus, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t prevent it,” Dr. Romero said. 

Prevention measures include Romero’s often quoted 3 W’s — wash your hands, wear your mask and watch your distance — as well as the COVID-19 vaccine. As of now, health officials say the COVID-19 vaccine appears to be effective against the U.K. variant. However, the virus could mutate over time.

“I think that in the future one of our big concerns is that this could lead to another spike in the number of cases because of the transmissibility,” Romero said. “It also impacts our vaccine program because in order to really bring the virus under control, we’re going to have to have larger numbers of individuals vaccinated.”

More than 154,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed in Arkansas. The state moved to Phase 1-B of its vaccination plan this week. As of Monday, Arkansans aged 70 and older and education workers are now eligible to receive the vaccine. Officials estimate an additional 443,000 Arkansans fall into these categories.

Priority groups must schedule an appointment to receive their vaccination. Teachers should first contact their district, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said, to see if immunization plans have already been arranged for their school. Arkansans 70 and older can make an appointment through local pharmacies. A list as well as a map of pharmacies administering vaccines to people who are part of Phase 1-A and 1-B can be found on the Arkansas Department of Health’s website

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.