Arkansas May Be Entering Third Wave of COVID-19, UAMS Chancellor Says

Less than 40 percent of the state’s population has been vaccinated.

UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson
UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson discusses the rise in COVID-19 cases in Arkansas during a press conference June 29, 2021.

The number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital who’ve been placed on ventilators has more than tripled in the last eight weeks. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has had to reestablish its surge plan and open up beds for patients with COVID-19.

“We are now going in the wrong direction yet again with COVID-19 infections here in the state of Arkansas,” UAMS chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson said.

With the upcoming July 4 holiday and students preparing to return to the classroom in the fall, Patterson said there’s concern the trend of increased cases could continue.

“And if it does, it would appear that we may be in the beginning of the third surge of COVID-19 here in the state of Arkansas,” he said.

During the governor’s weekly media briefing Tuesday, Dr. Patterson said a contributing factor to the substantial increase in cases is the Delta variant, which was initially detected in India. The first case of the Delta variant in Arkansas was identified May 1 and at present, more than 25 percent of the genomic isolates in the state are the Delta variant. Patterson expects the variant will account for more than half of the cases in Arkansas in the next week or two. 

The danger with this mutation is it’s more easily transmissible and is causing more severe disease. Patients are trending sicker and younger. For example, Patterson said there have been patients in their 20s who’ve required heart-lung bypass to manage their infections. 

“This is not losing your sense of smell and a bad case of flu. This is immediately coming into the hospital and being put on a ventilator,” he said. 

Officials are urging vaccination as one of the best ways of combating the spread of the Delta variant. There are nearly 3,400 active cases in the state, according to the Arkansas Department of Health, and 90.5 percent of those Arkansans are not fully immunized.

Since Jan. 26, 3,765 Arkansans have been hospitalized and 98.3 percent were not immunized. Of the 988 virus-related deaths since Jan. 26, 99.6 percent were not immunized.

“Statistics and science tell the story as to what needs to be done,” Hutchinson said. “And that means that we need to continue to push vaccination because that’s the safest and quickest way out of this.”

Thirty-nine percent of the state’s entire population is vaccinated; 52.4 percent of Arkansans age 18 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Bradley County has the highest vaccination rate at nearly 49 percent. In the five counties with the state’s lowest vaccination rates — Calhoun, Lafayette, Lincoln, Fulton and Miller — less than 28 percent of their populations have been immunized. 

Miller County in southwest Arkansas has the lowest vaccination rate at 18.56 percent, but Gov. Hutchinson noted that could be because people in that region have traveled to Texas for their shots. Arkansas officials are working with Texas health officials to get that data in order to get a more accurate representation of vaccinations in that county. 

To boost vaccinations, the governor announced May 26 that Arkansans who got immunized could use their vaccination card to redeem a scratch-off ticket from the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery or a gift certificate from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. A month into the program, Hutchinson said it’s not been effective in greatly incentivizing people and it won’t be something the state continues once the current commitments are fulfilled.

“I don’t think there’s anything more the government can do except to be honest with everyone and that they see the reality, and reality is the best incentive,” Hutchinson said. 

Information about how to schedule a vaccination appointment near you is available 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.