In Arkansas, six variants of the coronavirus that cause Covid-19 have been identified as those labeled as "of concern" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention elevated the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV2 virus from variant of interest to variant of concern.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, with Arkansas Department of Health, says the state currently doesn't have the capacity to test all samples for variants, but sends potential variants out of state to be tested.
"Since we know that these variants, particularly the Delta variant is much more easily spread, if we see a cluster of cases, we try to get specimens from the testing that was done on the people in the cluster," Dillaha said.
At this point, it takes three weeks or more to get results. As of last week, 364 of the 961 samples sent from Arkansas were identified as variants of concern. The CDC classifies variants into three categories: variant of interest, variant of concern, or variant of high consequence. The Delta variant was upgraded to one of concern because it has proven to be more easily transmissible and cause more severe disease.
"There's a couple of things to think about in terms of variants of concern that spread much more easily and quickly. One is that we will need higher levels of herd immunity to stop community spread," Dillaha said.
Achieving a higher level of herd immuniuty could prove to be a challenge in Arkansas, which has less than 50% of its population vaccinated against COVID-19 and seen the pace of vaccinations slow in recent weeks.
Another important factor, according to Dillaha, is that the virus is much more likely to infect those who lack immunity. The Alpha and Delta variants have proven to be more likely to infect young people, which is prompting discussions about how to safely open schools in the fall.
"So, testing in schools will be an important strategy to make sure that students get tested on a regular basis—hopefully with screening tests for the schools that are willing to do that," Dillaha said.
The CDC has not elevated any variants of the virus which causes Covid-19 to the level of high consequence because the approved vaccines are still proving to be effective protections.
A little over 950,000 Arkansans have been fully vaccinated. The state is using a variety of strategies to promote vaccination among vulnerable and reluctant populations. The number of active cases rose to its highest total in a month Tuesday.