Arkansas health officials are watching as some cases of the newest covid-19 omicron variant, XBB.1.5, have been confirmed in the state.
As of Wednesday, data doesn't show the variant as the dominant strain and covid-19 cases, which were increasing during and after the holidays, are starting to plateau, Dr. Joel Tumlison, Arkansas Department of Health medical director for immunizations, said.
"Within maybe four weeks it will be the predominant strain in Arkansas but we might have to wait and see how that develops," Tumlison said.
He said it could spread quicker as data is often lagged.
It is common for variants and subvariants to emerge with new advantages, Tumlison said. He said this includes ways to spread faster.
Tumlison said the most recent bivalent booster should still add some protection to the omicron variant because it provides immunity against the original omicron strain and other omicron subvariants.
The vaccine and booster continues to be encouraged as the best way to avoid serious illness, Tumlison said. He said it is especially important for those with higher risk and anyone older than 65.
Dr. Robert Hopkins, director of the division of general internal medicine at UAMS, said it is too soon to say whether the hospital has treated XBB.1.5 patients.
"However, the increase in cases and hospitalizations would make me suspect it or another highly transmissible type of Omicron is here," Hopkins said in an emailed statement.
Statewide data doesn't show a significant increase in serious illness from covid-19 in the past week, Tumlison said.
Department of Health data shows 367 hospital admissions Wednesday, which is down from about 440 hospitalizations more than a week ago, Tumlison said.
"We will have to see if the new variant becomes more dominant and if that changes the curve any," he said.
As of Wednesday, there were 6,130 active cases of covid-19 in the state. Of those hospitalized, 57 patients are in intensive care units and 25 patients are on ventilators.
Influenza spread also remains high in the state but circulation is on the decline, indicating the state has possibly seen the peak of the season.
Yet, it is possible for there to be seasons in which influenza peaks more than once and there's no way to indicate the possibility ahead of time, Tumlison said.
He said the public is still recommended to receive a flu vaccine to protect against serious illness.
While there was an increase in flu-related deaths and hospital admissions since the previous week, Tumlison said the overall trend in the past month has declined.
There were 138 confirmed influenza cases reported by the Arkansas Health Department Wednesday. It reported 159 cases last week.
Overall the state has seen 19,000 positive flu tests since the start of the season in October.
Circulation remains high, yet, dropped from 10 to 8 on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scale of 13.
About three percent of emergency room visits were for influenza-like illness in the past week, the report says. It was at five percent the week before, according to data.
Eight confirmed deaths were reported Wednesday. The number doubled from the previous week when four deaths were reported.
The Department of Health reported 87 hospital admissions for flu-related illness. It reported 60 admission the previous week.