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COVID cases in Arkansas continue showing overall decline

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Arkansas Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jennifer Dillaha speaking with KUAR News on Friday.

The number of hospitalizations and active cases of COVID-19 showed significant declines on Friday, which one of the state’s top health officials said was very encouraging.

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 5,660 new cases of people testing positive for the virus. With recoveries outpacing new infections, the number of active cases declined by 4,697 people. Hospitalizations fell by 68 people, with 1,720 people being treated statewide.

Twenty deaths were also reported, with the total since the start of the pandemic now at 9,616 people.

Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the department’s chief medical officer, spoke with KUAR News on Friday afternoon about the overall trend in cases. You can listen to the interview above or read an edited transcript below.

KUAR’S MICHAEL HIBBLEN: What do you think when you look at these numbers? Do you think we're seeing a solid decline in the omicron surge?

DR. JENNIFER DILLAHA: Well, I think we are seeing a solid decline in the cases. We've turned the corner, I believe, and we should see the number of cases decline over the next couple of weeks. It's hard to predict how low we will get. Other countries that have experienced this kind of surge have had a higher baseline, but I'm hoping that we can get pretty low in Arkansas. We also know that hospitalizations lag behind cases. When someone gets first diagnosed it gets reported, so we have the new case, but it may take several days before they become ill enough to be admitted to the hospital. So, the hospitalization numbers tend to lag about a week behind the case numbers. So we're pleased to see that we are seeing some declines in hospitalizations and we're hoping that that will be sustained because you know our hospitals in Arkansas have been very full.

Well, any speculation about hospitalizations and deaths, as you said, lagging behind. Do you think we'll see significant numbers as we head into the next week?

I think that hospitalizations, sometimes they'll bump up a little bit and then they'll come down, it's not so steady as the number of cases might be over time. Of course, there's kind of a weekly pattern that we see in cases. We don't see as many cases diagnosed on the weekend as we do during the week and there can be a little bit of a pattern in hospitalizations at times. So, we want to monitor those and provide support and resources to our hospitals until they are able to get to a sustainable level. Even though the hospitalizations right now are coming down, they're still way too high for the hospitals to be able to function in their normal way. So, we're wanting them to get much lower.

What advice do you have for our Arkansans?

Well, one of the main things that's keeping people out of the hospital is getting a booster dose if you've been fully vaccinated, that's critically important. We're finding that since the omicron surge hit on Dec. 1, of all the hospitalizations, only 3.2% have been people who are fully vaccinated and boasted. We call that up-to-date. About 30% of the people who've been admitted to hospitals have been fully vaccinated but not boasted. And about 67% of the people admitted to the hospitals, so that's two-thirds of the people admitted to hospitals, have not been fully vaccinated and boosted. So, we strongly encourage people, especially if they're in that category of being fully vaccinated but not boosted, if you get that booster dose, tt has really good benefits right away, and that's important. The other thing is for people to take steps to prevent the spread if they may have COVID-19 and don't know it. So, people should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing, at least until the hospital numbers are way down. We also want to keep the spread as low as possible until we have therapies, the antibodies and the oral medications to treat COVID-19. We want them to be more widely available so that a wider number of people, wider range of people, can access them. Right now, the supply is so short that a lot of people who need them can't get them.

Well, weather-wise, it's going to be warmer and nice this weekend. Hopefully people will be out, which might help.

Oh, that would be wonderful. It's been a long, dark winter for a lot of people in many ways, and getting outdoors and getting some sunshine and taking a deep breath is going to be very therapeutic, I think.

Michael Hibblen is News Director of UA Little Rock Public Radio. A 33-year radio veteran, he oversees the KUAR News staff, plans coverage and edits stories while also anchoring and reporting for the station.