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WATCH: County health officer says booster is key with omicron

by Brandon Smith | January 7, 2022 at 4:05 a.m.
Dr. Gene Shelby, health officer for Garland County, speaks with The Sentinel-Record Wednesday afternoon at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hot Springs. - Photo by Tyler Wann of The Sentinel-Record

As the state continues to see record numbers of positive COVID-19 cases, Garland County Health Officer Dr. Gene Shelby said Wednesday the vaccine booster dose is more important than ever -- particularly for the omicron variant.

"One of the things about the omicron variant that's different than the delta variant is that you really have to have the booster shot before the vaccine is very effective in preventing infection," he said. "So that's real key, and I think that's real important for people that have maybe been putting off getting the booster shot. There are definitely vaccines available and you need to go ahead and get that to be protected."

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Shelby noted while the omicron variant does not appear to cause the severity level of illness that delta caused, its ease of transmission is still very dangerous. Many hospitals and schools across the nation have reported staffing shortages over the last week as the virus infection continues to spread.

"I think the main thing with the omicron variant is it really is super contagious," he said. "And I think we're seeing that across the country and across the world -- and certainly here in Arkansas."

In his weekly report to the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force Monday, Shelby reported 238 new cases for the week of Dec. 26 to Jan. 2, which amounts to 34 new cases a day.

"We did do more testing this past week than the week of Christmas, and so our positive rate, it actually came down a little bit, from 30% down to 15%," he said.

According to a news release from the city of Hot Springs, CHI St. Vincent and National Park Medical Center reported at the meeting a combined 38 COVID patients, with 14 in intensive care, and 11 requiring ventilation. With students just returning back to school, area school districts reported tentative numbers of active cases among students and staff.

The Cutter Morning Star School District reported one student and two staff cases; Fountain Lake reported three staff and no known student cases; Hot Springs reported six student and 12 staff cases; Jessieville reported two staff and no known student cases; and Lake Hamilton reported two student and six staff cases.

As of Thursday morning, the Hot Springs, Lakeside and Mountain Pine school districts reinstated a temporary mask mandate policy.

Shelby said he believes wearing masks at school is still very key.

"You can only social distance to a certain degree in the school situation, and in the dining room, I think it's almost impossible, unless you can just really, really spread the students out or stagger their lunch times," he said. "But, you know, masks have been proven to reduce transmission, and with (omicron) being as contagious as it is, I think we need to do what we can to try to slow it down a little bit."

Shelby noted that while N95 masks are "definitely more effective in reducing the spread" than the basic cloth mask, there is much variation with masks in general, depending on how people wear them. He said wearing one properly, in which the nose and mouth are covered, is probably more important than the type of mask itself.

"I really think that with the amount of virus that we do have in the community that a school setting is just ripe for spread, and, especially, with the even lower vaccination rates amongst the school-age students. I think masks are really important," he said.

According to Shelby, Garland County will likely continue to see the spread of the omicron variant for a while, though he was unsure for how long.

"It seems like in other places that we've had a big spike and then it's dropped off pretty rapidly, and so we kind of hope for that," he said. "But, again, we're at such a low vaccination rate that I think we're going to continue to see quite a few cases. ... Masks and vaccines are the key, and I've been saying that for a year and a half now, or a year with the vaccines, but those are still major components to finding out an endpoint to this."

Print Headline: WATCH: County health officer says booster is key with omicron


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