Public Radio from UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

COVID cases expected to continue rising in Arkansas

File photo of Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, director of the Arkansas Department of Health.

BA.5, a subvariant of the virus that causes COVID-19, is contributing to rising cases counts and hospitalizations in Arkansas.

That's according to Department of Health Director Dr. Jennifer Dillaha who says the subvariant was identified in two-thirds of the cases tested last week using genomic sequencing. BA.5 was first identified and labeled as a Variant of Concern by the World Health Organization in January.

Forecasting by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the number of people hospitalized in the state is expected to continue rising for at least the next three weeks. Dillaha says there are several reasons this subvariant is being transmitted more rapidly.

“One is that it does a very good job of multiplying itself in people’s upper airways, so they can spread it more easily. Two, it is different enough from the previous variants that it poses a certain amount of what we call ‘immune escape,’ so that people who have had COVID-19 can get infected again with this variant.”

Dillaha says the subvariant is also eluding some of the immunization provided by the available vaccines. However, she says a full series of vaccinations plus booster doses has proven to provide some protection against illness and severe disease.

The BA.5 subvariant’s ability to reinfect those who have already had COVID-19 is causing concern, she says, because there is some evidence that repeated infections increase the chances for severe disease.

“Each infection does some damage, and it can be cumulative. And then it also means that that cumulative damage can predispose you to what we could call a chronic condition,” she said.

Dillaha said one of her main concerns is that, as more people contract COVID-19, more Arkansans will contract “long COVID” and have symptoms that linger for months.

“Most commonly it’s profound fatigue, and many people report what’s now being called ‘brain fog’ — they have difficulty concentrating or processing their thoughts — and that has impaired them enough it makes it difficult for them to carry on their daily activities.”

Last year, under the direction of the Biden administration, the U.S. Department of Justice outlined the circumstances under which long COVID could be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 counties in Arkansas, many of which are in central Arkansas, have infection rates high enough to warrant wearing masks while indoors. Dillaha recommended everyone take preventative measures to avoid contracting the disease, even without official mask mandates. She also urged Arkansans to get a full series of vaccinations and booster doses, because she expects another wave of the virus this fall and winter as school starts, and people spend more time indoors.

Over 300 people in Arkansas are hospitalized with COVID-19, which has killed 11,608 in the state as of Monday.

David Monteith worked as a reporter for KUAR News between 2015 and July 2022.