Could the winter storm lower COVID-19 cases in Arkansas?
The winter storm that inundated the Mid-South this month brought snow and below-zero temperatures to Arkansas. What followed were warnings from officials to stay inside if at all possible.
As a result, COVID-19 cases could drop, according to Lee Johnson, Fort Smith EMS medical director.
"You’ve had this week where we’ve been forced, because of the weather conditions and the road conditions, to be relatively isolated," Johnson said. "Certainly, that’s going to have an effect on the spread of COVID in our environment.”
Since mid-January, Arkansas has been on the decline for active COVID cases — the state had 667 new cases Wednesday, just 18% of the Jan. 6 high of 3,705. The decline follows what Gov. Asa Hutchinson said would be a rough month for the state following Christmas and New Year's Eve.
Hutchinson reasoned gatherings and travel during the holidays would likely lead to more cases. His statements weren't new. For almost a year, governments at all levels have stressed avoiding crowds and in-person meetings to prevent the spread of the virus.
It's conditions like these that lead to the spread of any viral illness in the winter, Johnson said. But conversely, he and others reason the winter storm — which brought snow and below-zero temperatures to the state — will work to combat the virus.
"It’s going to be less likely that people will be out and about where people will be exposed," said Jennifer Dillaha, state epidemiologist.
While winter weather helps the spread of viruses, Johnson said he views Valentine's Day as the turning point for transmission. Winter illnesses typically taper off after the holiday.
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But the isolation could also prove counterproductive if people create crowds by leaving their homes at the same time following the storm.
“We could see a bump in transmission as a result, but hopefully, we’ll be able to continue a downward trend that we were experiencing before these winter storms hit us," Dillaha said.
Johnson noted travel conditions have not been ideal, which could counter transmission.
The snow came as Arkansas gained momentum administering COVID vaccinations. On Thursday, the state had administered vaccines to 493,776 people, which represents about 16% of its population.
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Vaccines administered in Arkansas are expected to spike the week following the storm as people scheduled for vaccination during the snowfall were unable to get them.
"There will be lots of catching up to do with people who have missed their doses because of the winter weather, and then they’re wanting to try as much as possible to get the people, their doses that have already been scheduled," Dillaha said.
Baptist Health Fort Smith has said it is safe for patients waiting on a vaccine to receive it up to 42 days after the first dose. Spokesperson Alicia Agent said postponing the vaccine for Baptist patients "will not be a problem."
Even with the decline and possible further mitigation of cases through the winter storm, Dillaha still urged Arkansans to keep wearing masks and keeping 6 feet of distance between themselves and others. She said these behaviors are especially important as officials expect to eventually see variants of COVID in Arkansas.
And like the storm, Johnson is hopeful incoming weather will have a positive impact on the virus as well.
"We’re trending toward warmer days and longer days where people can be outside to socialize, which is a safer alternative for infectious diseases," he said.