Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday urged Arkansans who haven't already done so to get vaccinated as a way of preparing for a potential wave of infections caused by the fast-spreading omicron variant, but he ruled out measures such as reimposing a statewide mask mandate.
He said he's preparing to take steps to increase the state's hospital capacity, as he did last winter and during the summer, but hopes that won't be necessary.
"The risk is that we are in the bottom 10 of states in terms of our vaccination rate, so the national prognosticators say that’s a problem because that means 49% of our population is not fully vaccinated, and that’s a lot of room for omicron to work," Hutchinson said.
If more Arkansans don't get vaccinated, "if could mean in January or February we could have a hospital capacity issue," he said.
"We will be prepared for it in the event we have to expand hospital space," Hutchinson said. "We expanded hospital space last winter at the peak times, and we’ll be prepared to do it again if we have to.
"We don’t want to do that because it costs a lot of money, but if we have to we will."
Hutchinson spoke as the state's count of coronavirus cases rose by 955, continuing an uptick that state health officials say is likely due at least in part to the omicron variant.
Dropping for the second day in a row, however, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 fell by 17, to 496, the first time in more than a week it had been below 500.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 15, to 8,997.
As of Tuesday, a case of omicron announced Friday was still the only one in the state that had been confirmed.
The actual number of cases caused by the variant, however, is unknown because only a portion of specimens from positive tests are sequenced to determine which strain caused the infection, and it can take weeks to get the results.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates released Monday, omicron accounted for more than 73% of cases in the United States last week, including more than 92% of the cases in a region encompassing Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
During his weekly news conference at the state Capitol, Hutchinson said he met earlier in the day with hospital administrators from across the state who said they have adequate capacity now.
"We should have a good Christmas based upon the adequate hospital space that we have," Hutchinson said. "It also gives us a window of opportunity to act before omicron reaches its peak in Arkansas."
To prepare for the variant, he said more Arkansans need to get vaccinated.
"We want to increase our vaccination, our booster shots, so that come January we don't run into a hospital shortage, staffing shortages, and that we are able to make sure that we have adequate coverage for those that are sick because of this," Hutchinson said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson will provide his weekly media update at 1:30 p.m.
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