LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Friday’s Arkansas Department of Health COVID-19 report confirmed the first active case of the omicron variant in the state.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said this was expected and that he expects to see even more confirmed cases of the variant in the future.

“This is not a surprise, but it is a compelling reason to get a booster shot now,” Hutchinson said.

Dr. Jennifer Dillaha with the Arkansas Department of Health answered media questions during a Zoom call soon after the announcement. She also said news of the variant’s arrival doesn’t come as a surprise, with states surrounding Arkansas previously seeing cases of their own. 

Dillaha said this first omicron case was picked up from community spread, not travel, and there are other suspected cases of omicron that need to be sequenced before confirmation. Omicron is much more transmissible than the Delta variant, she said, and early data shows it may even decrease the efficacy of vaccines. 

Although observation of the variant in Europe shows omicron cases may be less severe than Delta cases, Dillaha said the sheer number of patients who will likely become infected could still cause a spike in hospitalizations. 

“It’s important for people to know that just because this variant has milder disease,” Dillaha said, “that doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful.”

Another concern is the timing of omicron’s arrival to Arkansas, during flu season and while Delta cases are still being fought. In addition, holiday travel and get-togethers threaten to cause another major spike in cases and hospitalizations, a trend the ADH said could be prevented by masking up and practicing social distancing.  

The number of new COVID-19 cases in the state went up 1,111 from the prior day, making the number for the total cases in Arkansas 542,426. The active case count went up 287 to 7,721.

Health officials also reported that 17 more deaths had been added to the state’s pandemic total, which now sits at 8,930.

Nine more people were hospitalized in the past day, moving the current number of hospitalizations in Arkansas to 538. There are 90 patients on ventilators, a drop of two from the previous reporting.

Dillaha adds that although much is still unknown regarding this new variant, booster doses of the COVID vaccine are shown to better protect patients from severe cases of COVID and may do more to help stop the spread of the highly contagious virus. She recommends everyone get the shot and receive the booster dose if eligible. 

There were 7,964 vaccine doses administered in Arkansas in the last 24 hours. Currently, there are 1,485,200 state residents who are fully immunized from the virus, with another 339,637 having partial immunity.