Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday he is watching to see what developments come from a new strain of COVID-19 that has recently been detected, but that the best strategy to fight it will continue to be pushing people to get vaccinated.

During his weekly media briefing, Hutchinson said that there is not enough information available about the so-called Omicron variant of COVID-19 to make any definitive decisions. The viral intensity of an Omicron infection or even how contagious it may be is unknown at this time, as is the effectiveness of therapies known to lessen the severity of other COVID strains.

“We don’t have the data for that,” he said. “Hopefully, by next Tuesday, we will have more data and more answers.”

While information is scant about the new strain — which has not been detected in Arkansas —  Hutchinson said it is important for the state to continue its vaccine program, which has a goal of creating mass immunity to stop to the spread of COVID variants.

“(Vaccination) is the best protection,” he said. “There are indications the current vaccine will be effective against (the Omicron variant).”

Locally, the number of all reported strains of COVID remain relatively low compared to the highs seen earlier this year. 

Last week the number of reported local infections had fallen into the single digits, and as of Nov. 30 the Arkansas Department of Health reported 11 known cases in Ashley County.

Statewide, the number of reported cases stood at 5,699 on Tuesday. Nationally, the United States has a reported 9.4 million active cases of COVID.

Because not much is known about the Omicron variant, the governor urged those who are unvaccinated to use social distancing practices and to wear masks in situations that call for them.

Vaccines have been approved for everyone age five and older in the United States. As an added caution, U.S. health officials have encouraged adults to receive booster doses of the vaccine approximately six months after they were considered fully immunized. 

While the governor has stressed the importance of vaccination, he praised Monday a U.S. District Court injunction against the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ mandate that required almost everyone who worked for or alongside Medicare- and Medicaid-certified providers to get vaccinated no later than Dec. 6.

The matter has not gone to trial and the mandate may ultimately still go into effect. 

The injunction was issued with a note from U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Schelp that in his consideration, “CMS did not have authority to mandate the vaccine; that CMS violated the Administrative Procedures Act when promulgating the mandate; and that the mandate was arbitrary and capricious,” a news release from the governor’s office said.

The governor’s news release said the mandate did not provide alternatives to vaccination such as regular testing, and that it could potentially cause staffing shortages in rural areas.

“I am thankful for the ruling issued today,” Hutchinson said. “Vaccine mandates are not the appropriate method to increase our vaccination rates, and the decision today shows that Arkansas is not alone in this position. My administration will continue to work with the Attorney General’s Office as this case moves to trial.”

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