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What does the Omicron COVID-19 variant mean for Arkansas?

With so many unanswered questions for what this new variant could bring, Arkansas doctors said it's not the time to panic.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — President Joe Biden, as well as leaders and health experts around the world, are working around the clock to learn more about the newest strain of COVID, the Omicron variant. 

The variant, which was discovered in South Africa, has spread to at least 14 countries, including Canada. 

But should we be worried here in Arkansas?

Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, Arkansas Department of Health Chief Medical Officer, said we just don't know yet. 

"Hopefully in the next few weeks, we'll have the answer to many of our questions and then we'll be able to make better informed decisions about how we want to handle this particular variant," she said.

With so many unknowns for what this new COVID-19 variant could bring, Dr. Joe Thompson, Arkansas Center for Health Improvement President and CEO, said it's not the time to panic.

"If you've not protected yourself through vaccinations, you are at risk, so that's the risk you should worry about, not the new variant at this point in time," he said. 

According to Thompson, there are still two important things health officials need the answers to.

"One, is it more transmissible? Does it spread faster? And number two, does it cause more severe disease? We'll have to learn those two things to know how much of a threat this new variant is," he said.

What we do know is that the Omicron variant has many mutations on the spike of the virus, which is what the vaccines were targeting. 

This is why some worry about the vaccine's effectiveness, but Dillaha said the shot still brings hope.

"We feel that the vaccine will produce some immunity and possibly good immunity against this variant, we just have to verify it," she said.

Both Thompson and Dillaha believe it's not a matter of 'if' this variant makes its way to Arkansas, it's a matter of 'when.'

"I think this variant, like the Delta variant, will spread globally and it will ultimately get here in Arkansas," Thompson said. 

"We're actively looking for it, so hopefully, we will identify when it does arrive," Dillaha said.

So, while we wait to see what impact this variant could have in our state, Dillaha said we aren't in the clear just yet.

"This pandemic is like baseball, it is not over until it's over and as much as we would like it to be over now, it looks like we're going into additional innings," she said.

So, what's the best way to protect yourself? 

Thompson and Dillaha said the same thing they've been preaching for the past year, get the shot. 

They also added that if it's been over six months since your last two shots, get the booster now.