Experts express concern over lack of vaccinations, recent rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Arkansas

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson / Screen capture

Some prominent doctors in Arkansas are speaking out about a recent rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state.

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, whose hospital has been tracking the pandemic since it started, posted a long thread on Twitter Wednesday expressing concern about the issue.

Patterson’s biggest concern, he said, is the stalled vaccination rate that now ranks among the worst in the country. According to the New York Times, Arkansas is currently ranked 48 out of 50 states with just 33% of the state’s population as a whole fully vaccinated. Only Alabama and Mississippi have done worse.

“Only 40% of the population (ages 12+) are fully vaccinated & 9.6% (ages 12+) are partially immunized,” Patterson said. “Our safe & amazingly effective vaccines are our greatest weapon against easy COVID-19 transmission and we in Arkansas are clearly not at the point where our communities are gaining substantial benefit from the vaccines. The doses are here, but vaccine hesitancy is a sad reality right now in many parts of our state. We HAVE TO do better.”

Patterson also expressed worry about an increase in seriously ill patients he is seeing at UAMS.

“We (at UAMS) are seeing a resurgence of seriously ill patients infected with COVID-19,” he said. “Our UAMS experience is consistent with statewide data—only a few months ago there were only 34 patients across the state with COVID-19 in an ICU bed, & that number has more than doubled (to) 75 patients with COVID-19 occupied an Arkansas ICU bed yesterday.”

Patterson said the patients he is seeing are younger, and sicker, than those he saw earlier in the pandemic as well.

“I’ve always advocated that monitoring seriously ill (in ICU or on ventilator) case numbers are the North Star for monitoring the pandemic, & that is true now more than ever,” Patterson said. “The doubling in the number of ICU patients with COVID-19 in a few months is an indication that we as a state are going in the wrong direction, despite the amazing vaccines that are now readily available but not broadly accepted. But there is probably more to it than this. We are seeing more patients in their 40s & 50s & 20s & even late teens in our ICUs who are infected with COVID-19, which suggests that the virus itself has changed.

“The Delta variant, which has devastated Great Britain, is now circulating in Arkansas, & the Delta variant is known not only to be more transmissible but also to have more devastating consequences especially in younger individuals. It has been heartbreaking for me to see young mothers & fathers in our ICUs requiring mechanical support because of COVID-19 infection,” he said.

Patterson isn’t the only doctor in the state worried about the state of the virus.

Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, expressed similar concerns about the lack of vaccinations among Arkansans and new, more infectious present in the state in an interview with a Eureka Springs publication this week.

“People who either have not had Covid or who have not been vaccinated are completely unprotected,” Thompson said. “If you have not been vaccinated or have had Covid, your immune system does not recognize this virus. And because the variants are more infectious, you may be more at risk than you were before.”

“Where there are high levels of unvaccinated people, that is exactly what this virus is looking for as an opportunity to strike,” Thompson told the newspaper.

Dr. Jared Beavers, a pediatrician at UAMS has also posted about his concerns on social media this week.

“Our state is 1 of 5 in the union where COVID cases are rapidly on the rise. Any guesses as to why?” he asked in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “Anecdotally, we’re seeing more babies infected with COVID, more children admitted to the hospital, and pregnant women (having to deliver prematurely in the ICU to save the baby, crashing onto ECMO, transfers from all over) with COVID. Any guesses as to why? It’s not guesswork. It’s science. Vaccines help protect the most vulnerable, not just you. There are new variants, and that means more people are going to get sick, even those who previously had COVID.”

Patterson summed up his remarks with a characterization from a recent report on the virus prepared by UAMS.

“COVID-19 is not over in Arkansas,” the report states. “It is, at best, smoldering.”