ACHI President and CEO Dr. Joe Thompson discussed the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, the emergence of the omicron subvariant, and what an endemic phase of COVID-19 might look like in recent media interviews and a Zoom call with the Arkansas Municipal League.
Speaking to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Thompson compared the omicron surge to a hurricane that is beginning to recede.
“I think this will come down, but the storm clouds have not passed yet,” he said. “If you were using a hurricane analogy, I think we’re still in the middle of a Category 2 or 3 hurricane. It is receding, but it is not yet a tropical storm, and it’s not yet, clearly, an all-clear signal.”
Although new known COVID-19 cases in the state have been decreasing, “I would caution, these cases are only those that are reported by active clinical laboratories,” Thompson said during a Zoom call Thursday with the Arkansas Municipal League, available on ACHI’s YouTube channel. “We have over a million at-home tests out across the state now that … if positive are not counted in these numbers. So I have a little bit of trepidation about over-interpreting the reduction.”
Thompson said he believes the pandemic is on a downhill slope in Arkansas, but transmission is still high across the state, so precautions including frequent hand washing, social distancing, mask wearing, and optimization of ventilation remain important.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he told 40/29. “The infection rate is still fairly high, higher than delta was out in our communities. So don’t put your defenses down yet. Give us another couple of, three weeks, let omicron die out, and then we may be able to have a relatively normal spring.”
In a separate interview with 40/29, Thompson discussed Arkansas’s COVID-19 deaths, which surpassed 10,000 on Saturday.
“Since the public health emergency was declared over in June, we’ve probably had over 3,000 deaths that could have been prevented,” he said. “That’s 3,000 families that might still have their loved one with us if they had gotten vaccinated. We had probably 1,500 children that have lost a primary caregiver throughout the COVID pandemic. The loss, the mental stress, is really high in the state.”
During the Zoom call with the Arkansas Municipal League, Thompson fielded a question about the subvariant of omicron known as BA.2. The sub-variant appears to be even more infectious than the highly contagious omicron, he said.
“If you are not vaccinated and boosted, what the new variant represents is a heightened likelihood that you are going to get infected,” Thompson said. “I would still say that if you are in a public space with more than 10 or 15 people, it is likely that you have someone actively infected with omicron or the ‘son of omicron’ variant, and if you are not boosted, you are at risk of contracting the virus and taking it home to your family and friends. And if you have a comorbidity or you are in some state of an immunocompromised situation, you are at a heightened risk of hospitalization and bad outcomes ― ultimately, death.”
“You’re going to end up with hotspots that blow up every now and then where you have a large number of infections,” he said. “As we get control of omicron, it won’t be the nationwide epidemic, pandemic that we’ve been experiencing over the last two years.”
Whether people will still need shots to protect against COVID-19 at that point will depend on “what the science tells us,” he said.