LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha says the omicron COVID-19 variant still hasn’t peaked in Arkansas.

KNWA’s Chelsea Helms talks with Dillaha about the future of the pandemic.

The video for the full interview and the transcript can be found below.

Glad to have you with us. The big news, today, obviously, is Arkansas reporting a record-breaking number of new hospitalizations. Are people going to the hospital because they have COVID? Or are they going to the hospital for other reasons and then finding out they have COVID?

Well, you know, it’s very difficult to sort that out. But, most of the hospitalizations are for people who have COVID, and if they find out they have COVID, after they’re at the hospital, they still have to receive COVID care. They’re in isolation, and it’s still very burdensome in terms of staff time and care.

Would you say more patients in Arkansas who are hospitalized with COVID-19 are seeing more severe side effects? Or are some just not seeing any side effects at all, but they’re hospitalized with, say, a broken arm, but because they have COVID? They’re isolated?

I would say that most people in the hospital with COVID are in the hospital because they have COVID.

We do know that COVID cases are starting to drop around the nation. But, we did just recently, here in Arkansas, hit our all-time high of cases, since the very start of the pandemic. Can we say we’ve peaked in the Natural State?

No, I would not say we have peaked yet. We were hit with omicron a little bit after other states were hit with the omicron variant. So, I would expect we would peak later than some other states. But hopefully, it will be soon.

Okay, so with “soon” being a very vague word, is there a better idea of maybe a timeline on when we could see that happening?

Well, I’m hoping it will be within a week or so. But you know, I’ll believe it when I see it, you know, after the hospitalizations going up today, that’s very concerning that we may not be at the peak yet.

Okay, well, here’s a follow-up to that. Obviously, the Omicron variant is spreading very rapidly, many more people are getting infected with this specific variant. We do know doctors have said this is milder. Is this kind of a good thing that it’s spreading as fast as it is? Could it be putting us on a road to normalcy?

Well, it’s a very good thing that fewer people have severe disease with the omicron variant than say, the delta variant because certainly, our hospitals would be completely overwhelmed if that was not the case. However, we are now seeing a record number of hospitalizations in our console due to the omicron variants. So, it is not a mild disease for everyone. It’s just simply somewhat milder than the Delta variant for people. So, we want to make sure that people take measures to prevent the spread and get vaccinated.

Well, speaking of preventing the spread, Gov. Asa Hutchinson did say Friday during his press briefing that vaccination rates in the state are stagnant. So, what are examples of ways the Arkansas Department of Health is working to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 aside from encouraging people to get vaccinated?

Well, I think it’s really important for people to know their vaccination status and get fully vaccinated as well as boosted. So, that’s important for tracking that. But in the meantime, it’s important for people to be able to get tested if they have symptoms, so they can make an informed decision about whether they need to stay home and isolate. You know, if people have symptoms and they don’t know if they have COVID or not, they may continue to spread them if they don’t stay home. And then the other thing that’s so critically important is that everyone needs to wear a well-fitting mask wherever they go out in public right now.

I’m glad you brought up the masking. Did you want to speak on the different types of masks that you feel worked the best? We’ve read recent studies that say cloth masks don’t work at all, really.

Masks actually worked really well to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they don’t work as well to prevent the wearer from getting COVID-19. So, the best situation would be to wear a surgical-style mask that’s tight-fitting. Some people have a hard time getting tight-fitting surgical-style masks, so if a person wore a cloth mask over a surgical-style mask, that would work very well.

In addition, there are more KN95 masks available for people. They fit very snugly around the face and they work as a really good filter. The important thing is to have that snug fit so that people are breathing air through the mask, and the mask works as a filter rather than the air coming around on both sides of the mask because it fits too loosely. Finally, there is an N95 mask that is best for healthcare professionals. The public may wear them, also. But, they are difficult to wear, they fit very tightly around the mask, and you have to kind of work hard to draw the air through the mask and the filter. So, they work well for short periods of time, if someone chooses to wear N95.

Thank you for breaking that down for us. Dr. Dillaha. I do have one final question for you. Would you say there was a disconnect between the governor’s office and the State Department of Health? I ask this because often we hear from state health leaders like yourself on the importance of wearing a mask and wearing it appropriately. But then, we see people like the governor in public settings not doing so.

So, I have not observed that disconnect myself. And of course, it’s going to be important for people to adhere to the CDC and the Arkansas Department of Health recommendations. And I don’t have further comment on that.

Okay, I’m going to give you the floor. Is there anything that you want the people of Northwest Arkansas to know whether that be about the pandemic helping contain the spread? Or just the omicron variant in general? Is there just one thing you think people need to know?

Well, I think one of the most important things right now is for people to recognize how infectious the omicron variant is that the vaccines work to prevent severe illness and reduce hospitalizations. But if someone really wants to work hard in preventing the infection, then what is needed is a booster dose. So, the most protection is being fully vaccinated.

The booster dose does a good job of helping prevent infection and keeping people in the hospital. Right now, of all the hospitalizations, about 3% of them are people who are fully vaccinated and boosted. And of all the cases we’ve had since December 1, only about 3% are fully vaccinated and have their booster dose. So, that’s the group that has the highest protection and we encourage everyone to take steps to move in that direction.

Well, Dr. Dillha, really quickly while I still have you. You just jogged my memory on another question. At what point can we expect to see the term fully vaccinated represent those who have received that booster shot?

Well, right now, what we are doing is calling people who were fully vaccinated and have their booster shot up to date. People who’ve had their primary series, the two doses of Pfizer, Moderna, or the one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine are called fully vaccinated.

That’s not likely to change, but we are interested in people getting up to date when a new recommendation such as the booster doses comes about. We want people to adhere to those booster doses to get them because they offer the best protection.