Dr. Roddy Lochala


Members of the community who “are a risk for a severe outcome” are being highly encouraged to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster by Dr. Roddy Lochala, chief medical officer for Unity Health-White County Medical Center, as COVID-19 cases surge due to the omicron variant.

Lochala said that those who have recently received a booster shot have more protection against symptomatic illness, “so it’s most definitely better.”

“I want everyone that can get a booster to get it, but I would really focus on the members of our community who are at risk of a bad outcome, and that’s going to include – as we get older our risk goes up – chronic medical conditions, people with cancer and chronic health problems that increase their risk of a severe outcome,” he said. “I want everybody to get it [the booster] but if there was a group that I could really focus on and look in the eye and say, ‘I think this is really worth your effort to do,’ it’s going to be that community.”

He said what has been learned by health officials concerning the COVID-19 vaccines “is that antibody levels diminish over time and after the four-, five-, six-month range [after getting vaccinated], you are diminishing levels of antibodies, which is your first line of defense when it comes to COVID.”

Although the antibodies made due to the vaccines were specific to the “spike protein” in the original version of COVID and omicron has a different spike protein, “it’s not all different,” Lochala said. “It’s some different and that difference combined with fewer antibodies means that there are some breakthrough infections and people do have symptoms.

“The thing is, the antibody level isn’t the whole story. There is a second line of defense that we have that kicks in after that initial antibody response and it continues to be successful.”

Lochala compared the immune response to “a dimmer switch on a light. It goes up and down and it kind of diminishes over time and it makes you more prone to symptomatic illness.” He said while the booster has raised the antibodies “up again, you’ve got diminishing antibody levels to a spike protein and an introduction of a virus with some significant differences in that spike protein.”

The omicron variant has proven to spreads more easily than other coronavirus strains, becoming dominant in many countries. Health officials have said it also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus. However, early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant, and vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement has urged residents and employers to take steps to prevent the virus’ spread, including limiting in-person meetings, requiring masks indoors and allowing work-from-home options.

On Monday, the ACHI said a record 226 Arkansas public school districts, “or 97 percent of the state’s 234 contiguous school districts, have COVID-19 infection rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 district residents over a 14-day period” based on data from Arkansas Department of Health as of Saturday.

The organization made a special update to the COVID-19 dashboard on its website, achi.net/covid19, in response to “the accelerated spread of the virus” by adding a pink level to “signify an infection rate of 200 or more new known infections per 10,000 district residents over the past 14 days, or at least 2 percent of the district’s population.” It noted that “in some districts, more than 4 percent of residents in the local community are known to be infected.”

Concerning the “immediate threat” posed by the omicron variant across Arkansas communities, ACHI is calling for the following short-term actions:

“implementation of masking requirements for all staff and students in all schools across the state; virtual instruction for schools in the purple and pink zones; sheltering in place for seniors, families with unvaccinated children and families with members who are immunocompromised or at risk because of health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or cancer; and suspension of public interactions or implementation of virtual options where possible on the part of municipalities, businesses and houses of worship.”

Dr. Joe Thompson said “unfortunately, we need to endure some temporary disruptions in our daily lives so we can stop the virus’ spread,” said Dr. Joe Thompson, president of the nonpartisan, independent health policy center.

The 55 districts in the pink level include Little Rock with over 3.8 percent of the community infected, North Little Rock with 3.1 percent, the Pulaski County Special School District with over 2.9 percent, Conway with over 2.8 percent, Jacksonville with over 2.6 percent, Lonoke with over 2.3 percent and Cabot with over 2.1 percent. Some of those decided last week to temporarily shift to virtual classes.

As of Saturday, the following districts in the county had infection rates of at least 100 new known infections per 10,000 district residents over the previous 14 days: Beebe, Bradford, Riverview, Searcy, White County Central and Pangburn.

No school districts in White County had moved to virtual-only by Monday, although McRae Elementary School was closed due to a water line break. Masks were optional at all but three of the districts (Searcy, Bradford and Bald Knob), although White County Central posted on Facebook that “we are aware of several new cases this weekend, so we are highly recommending masks for your protection.”

A lawsuit has been filed against Searcy’s mask mandate, with retired Circuit Judge Robert Bynum Gibson Jr. being assigned to the case last week after White County’s circuit judges recused.

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