NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — As hospitals reach or near capacity in Northwest Arkansas, the president of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement sounds the alarm on a new COVID-19 variant of potential concern.

A spokesperson for Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas said Thursday that its ICU and Progressive Care were at physical capacity.

Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas continues to see high patient volumes related to the spread of respiratory illnesses, which include influenza and COVID-19. We are currently at ICU and Progressive Care physical capacity.

Chief Nursing Officer for Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas, Jacqueline Truesdale

Washington Regional is also seeing a high number of patients come through, with many needing intensive care. They also attribute the large numbers to respiratory illnesses.

We are seeing the number of patients admitted for the flu begin to drop. However, the number of patients being admitted with COVID-19 continues to slowly climb. In the coming weeks, we may see an increase in cases of respiratory illnesses following holiday gatherings, and it is too soon to know if cases have peaked.

Washington Regional Spokesperson

Hospitals struggle as a new COVID-19 variant makes headlines. Dr. Joe Thompson, with the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, said XBB.1.5 now accounts for 40% of COVID-19 transmissions nationwide and 20% of transmissions regionally.

With its quick spread, Dr. Thompson said the variant will be highly transmissible. However, how deadly the virus will be and whether it will evade our protections remains unknown. He said we will likely find out within the next few weeks.

With the high transmission rate of the new subvariant, Thompson expects it to raise the patient volume in hospitals across the state. Thompson wants people to know the threat of COVID-19 is not gone.

“The good news is that more of us have built up antibodies or through vaccines, have antibodies against COVID-19. With each new mutation though, there is a chance that we’re going to have a more deadly or more resistant virus emerge,” said Thompson.