Arkansas will confront the omicron variant with one of the lowest full vaccination rates in the nation as doctors warn the state should brace for another deadly coronavirus surge.
Infectious-disease experts say the omicron variant could strain and even overwhelm the state's hospital system, burdening an already tired health care workforce and diminishing care for noncoronavirus patients.
The unvaccinated stand to suffer the greatest with an omicron surge, the experts warn.
"There are, frankly, a lot of people who think they're going to be alive on New Year's or in January who won't be alive or who will be in the hospital," said Dr. Greg Poland, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Overall, 50.8% of Arkansas' total population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to Monday data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's the seventh-lowest rate in the nation.
Doctors continue to urge people to get the coronavirus vaccine. People who are vaccinated should get a booster shot, they said.
The state's vaccination rate remains stubbornly low, despite pleas from public health experts, months of widespread vaccine availability and an event tour from Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Nationally, the omicron variant has injected fresh uncertainty into the holiday season, raising questions about how friends and families should gather for celebrations.
Some places, such as New York and New Jersey, are seeing a sharp upturn in their coronavirus cases. New York has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, at 71.1%. New Jersey is right behind it at 69.9%.
With Arkansas' low vaccination rate, it would be a "miracle" if the state's hospital system did not get overrun, said Poland from Mayo Clinic. He said omicron will likely sweep through after the holidays.
"You will have a major surge that will lead to many hospitalizations, deaths and illnesses," he said.
Dr. Robert Hopkins, chief of the division of general internal medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said he thinks Arkansas is likely to see a record high number of cases and record highs in coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths.
Hopkins, who is a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the UAMS College of Medicine, expects that Arkansas will see a rapid rise in infections. He said he's worried about hospitals potentially overflowing with patients again.
"You get [an] increase in flu cases, an increase in covid cases. That's the potential for us to have a real disaster with not having enough hospital beds to take care of those folks," he said.
Adding to the mix is a health care workforce that has been fighting the virus for nearly two years.
"I'm very concerned about maintaining a strong and robust health care workforce in our state as we go into another surge," Hopkins said.
There are initial reports that suggest omicron is causing severe disease in a smaller percentage of the cases compared with the delta variant and prior variants, said Dr. Jessica Justman, an associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
But because omicron can infect so many people, hospital systems can potentially still be overwhelmed even if a smaller percentage of those cases require hospitalization, she said.
People should wear masks in public indoor settings, Justman said.
She also recommended wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings because omicron is a highly contagious variant.
When hospitals become overrun with coronavirus patients, routine care can be postponed and medical care can suffer for people facing noncoronavirus medical issues, such as an injury from a car accident, doctors said.
When procedures such as colonoscopies are delayed, a patient can possibly lose out on the opportunity to detect cancer at an early stage, Just-man said.
Larry Shackelford, president and CEO of Washington Regional in Fayetteville, projected confidence in the hospital's ability to have enough physicians and nurses to handle an omicron wave.
They are watching to see what percentage of people infected with the omicron variant will require inpatient care, he said, adding that it's hard to project hospitalization volumes.
"We're certainly poised, with our phase surge plan, to direct resources as needed," he said.
Either way, Arkansans should be prepared for the omicron variant to spread, experts said.
Dr. David Alain Wohl, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, called the variant a "game changer." "This is not going to spare any part of the country," he said.