Omicron Variant Confirmed in Arkansas Ahead of Christmas

The state’s health secretary is urging mitigation tactics at holiday gatherings.

Black family wearing masks hanging decorations on a Christmas tree during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Arkansas Department of Health confirmed the state’s first COVID-19 case involving the Omicron variant Friday. During today’s weekly press briefing, Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said the variant is likely already spreading through the state. 

“This is prevalent now, it’s becoming more prevalent in our state,” Romero said. “The fact that we found only one doesn’t mean that’s the only one that is here.”

The Omicron variant accounts for more than 73 percent of COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Monday. That number jumps to 92 percent in a region that includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico; however, Gov. Asa Hutchinson noted this is a projection for the region and is not specific to Arkansas. 

“Regardless of whether the current estimate is precise, it is clear that omicron is in our state, it is spreading rapidly and it will define our prevention efforts for the coming months,” Hutchinson said. 

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 955 new cases today. Craighead County had the most new cases of any county, 116, with approximately 80 percent of those in the Jonesboro area. Arkansans 25 to 44 years old account for more than 50 percent of those cases, while children under 18 account for 20 percent. 

Eligible Arkansans should receive a booster dose of the vaccine for extra protection against the new variant, Romero said, and with holiday gatherings taking place this week, there are other steps that can be taken to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“Use a mask, limit your get-togethers to family members — particularly family members that have been immunized — and if you’re going places, get tested before you go,” Romero said. 

The state will have adequate hospital space through the holiday, but that could change in January if Arkansas has another surge in cases like last winter, Hutchinson said. Only 51 percent of eligible Arkansans have been fully vaccinated and 14 percent have had a booster dose. 

More than 87 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations are unvaccinated Arkansans, so the goal remains increasing vaccination rates, the governor said. However, if officials need to again expand capacity because of a surge in cases, they will.

“We expanded hospital space last winter at the peak times and we’ll be prepared to do it again if we have to,” Hutchinson said. “We don’t want to do that because it costs a lot of money, but if we have to, we will. But the better answer is let’s get vaccinated.”

More information about COVID-19 vaccines 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.