LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Health experts in Arkansas say the COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed in the past few weeks because of low vaccination rates and the Delta variant, and some are now calling on lawmakers to reconsider a ban on mask mandates approved earlier this year.
A report from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences says the state is poised to see over 370,000 cumulative cases by Monday.
“The COVID-19 test positivity rate is more than 20%. This is five times the national average,” UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson said.
Patterson said the model shows Arkansas residents between the ages of 35 and 59 accounting for the the highest number of new cases. The model predicts an increase of nearly 6,000 cases in that group over the next 15 days.
“Unfortunately, the model is also forecasting an increase of almost 2,500 cases in children under 17,” Patterson said.
Patterson said that UAMS is seeing younger patients hospitalized. The average age is 40.
“Most are unvaccinated individuals who are healthy prior to their admission to the hospital. Instead of enjoying time with their family and loved ones this summer, they are in the hospital struggling to breathe and stay alive,” Patterson said.
Dr. Joe Thompson is the president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.
“The UAMS model used data through July 11, when we started this rapid uptick following the Fourth of July weekend," Thompson said. "The data that they suggested was about 1,000 cases a day from data on July 11. We’re seeing that. I’m afraid that the numbers are going to continue to escalate even faster because of the growth that we’ve seen just in the last week."
With a vaccination rate lower than the national average and with a variant that is more than twice as infectious and more serious, Thompson said the state is setting itself up to overwhelm its healthcare system.
“I worry about the school year getting off to a very rough start with a threat to education, a threat to the social activities and a threat to our athletic events that we all want to attend,” Thompson said.
The Arkansas state legislature passed a law to end government mask mandates in Arkansas.
“I’ve talked with superintendents across the state and they are very concerned that one of the defensive measures that they had to be able to use last year is not available this year. I would encourage all of our members of the general assembly to reconsider those handcuffs and to let local leaders do what they must do as this epidemic continues,” Thompson said.
Thompson also added that if you are considering getting your child vaccinated before the start of the school year, it’s best to start talking with doctors now and get vaccinated sooner rather than later so that the child can be fully protected by the first day of school.
Thompson also said that the Delta variant is putting young people in the hospital. He said more than half of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are younger than 30.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson responded to the UAMS model by saying, “The case projections are consistent with the current trend. Hopefully, the report will alert every Arkansan that we must increase our vaccine doses in the arms of Arkansans.”