The number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas continued falling on Thursday as the state posted its biggest daily increase in vaccine doses administered in more than two months.
Among public school students and employees, however, the number of active cases, as tracked in state reports, went up after dropping earlier in the week.
The state’s total count of cases rose by 517, the first daily increase in three days that was larger than the one a week earlier.
Arkansas’ death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 19, to 8,344.
“For the second day in a row, our vaccine doses almost doubled the same day last week,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
“One month ago, our active cases totaled almost 11,000 and our percent positivity was over 9%. Today, our positivity rate is just above 6% and we have over 6,000 fewer active cases.”
The number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas hospitals fell by 18, to 348, its lowest level since July 2.
The Health Department’s tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 14,029, an increase that was larger by more than 6,800 than the one a week earlier.
Except for an increase of more than 31,000 doses on Aug. 26 that state officials said included some “data cleanup” and delayed reporting of doses that had been administered earlier, it was the biggest one-day jump since Aug. 21.
Third doses, including booster shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for people who received their second doses more than six months ago, accounted for 58% of the increase.
First doses have also been on the rise, however.
The number jumped Thursday by 3,594, the biggest one-day increase since Sept. 9.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department’s chief medical officer, said the uptick in first doses could be tied to the opening up of booster doses to a wider group of people.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month recommended Pfizer boosters for people who received their second dose at least six months ago and are 65 or older, have health conditions putting them at risk of severe covid-19 or are at high risk of catching the virus because of their jobs or living environment.
The agency last week made a similar recommendation for people who received their second dose of the Moderna vaccine at least six months ago.
It also endorsed boosters for anyone who received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago.
“I think maybe since booster doses are being recommended, people are taking a second look at whether or not to get vaccinated at all, and some of them are deciding to go ahead and get their shots,” Dillaha said.
The average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose Thursday to 8,702, the highest average since the week ending Sept. 6.
The average for first doses rose to 2,004, topping 2,000 for the first time since the week ending Sept. 23.
The averages for both total doses and first doses, however, remained well below the levels they reached during the summer.
For total doses, the summer peak was an average of 13,361 a day in the week ending Aug. 27.
First doses topped out at an average of 8,662 a day in the week ending Aug. 6.
FEWER ON VENTILATORS
Thursday was the third day in a row when the number of covid-19 patients in the state’s hospitals fell.
The numbers who were on ventilators and intensive care both fell for the second day in a row.
The number on ventilators fell by 11, to 100, its lowest level since July 13.
The number who were in intensive care fell by 10, to 164, its lowest level since July 5.
The number of intensive care unit beds in the state’s hospitals that were unoccupied, however, fell by 16, to 126, reflecting a reduction in the total number of staffed intensive care unit beds and an increase in non-covid-19 patients who were in intensive care.
People with covid-19 made up about 15% of all the state’s patients who were in intensive care on Thursday, down from about 16% a day earlier.
SCHOOL CASES UP
Among students and employees at public elementary and secondary schools, the number of active cases, as tracked in Health Department reports released twice a week, rose by 58, to 950, after falling by 205 on Monday.
That continued for a third week a pattern in which the cases dropped significantly at the beginning of the week, then rose by a smaller amount later.
This week, the Rogers, Bentonville and Pulaski County Special school districts had the most active cases on both Monday and Thursday.
Between the two days, the number rose by 16, to 66, in the Rogers district and by six, to 56 in the Bentonville district.
In the Pulaski County Special district, the number fell by one, to 35.
The number of school districts with five or more active cases rose by one, to 58.
At colleges and universities, the number of active cases among students and employees fell by five, to 94, from Monday to Thursday.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, had the highest total both days, although the number dropped from 18 to 17.
At private elementary and secondary schools, the number of active cases rose by six, to 62, from Monday to Thursday.
In a weekly report, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said 11 public school districts had had 50 or more new cases per 10,000 residents within their boundaries over a two-week span, down from 17 last week.
The Bradford School District’s 29 cases during the two weeks ending Monday translated to a rate of 101 per 10,000 residents, making the district in White County the only one in the state with 100 or more new cases per 10,000 residents during that time.
A week earlier, no district in the state had 100 or more new cases per 10,000 residents over a 14-day span.
The cases include those among residents of the district, excluding incarcerated people and residents of nursing homes and human development centers.
The Center for Health Improvement also reported that, for the sixth week in a row, the Bentonville, Cleveland County, Magnet Cove, Fountain Lake and Pulaski County Special school districts were the only ones in the state where at least 50% of residents were fully vaccinated.
The rates in those districts ranged from 55% in the Bentonville district to 52% in the Pulaski County Special district.
ACTIVE CASES RISE
While smaller than the one a day earlier, the statewide increase in cases on Thursday was larger by 11 than the one the previous Thursday.
After falling the previous two days, the average daily increase over a rolling seven-day period rose to 435.
With new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by nine, to 4,851.
It was the second day in a row the number had risen, although it remained down by more than 800 from a week earlier.
“From what I can tell, the cases are such that they’re not going down as fast as they were previously, but they’re still trending down,” Dillaha said.
She said she was “a little bit worried about the cases in the population centers,” noting that the top three counties for new cases Thursday were Benton County with 77, Pulaski County with 35 and Washington County with 33.
“We’re going to have to delve into that and see what we can learn about where the spread is and what the specifics are in case there’s something different we need to do,” Dillaha said.
For instance, she said, “if it’s in a work setting or school setting, there might be some changes that could be taken that would minimize continued spread.”
Meanwhile, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge was among 21 Republican state attorneys general who signed onto a letter this week urging President Joe Biden to scrap or delay the enforcement of a Sept. 9 executive order requiring employees of federal contractors to be fully vaccinated.
Guidance published by a federal task force on Sept. 24 said the vaccination requirement, with a compliance deadline of Dec. 8, must be included in contracts awarded on or after Nov. 14 or renewed after Oct. 15.
“All citizens–including federal contractors–should have the right to make their own decision about whether to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” the attorneys general said in the letter, dated Wednesday.
Among other objections, they said that “implementing the mandate now, in the middle of a supply-chain crisis, could have disastrous consequences in light of the approaching holiday season.”
The task force guidance said contractors must require employees to provide proof of vaccination unless the employee qualifies for a medical or religious exemption.
It does not allow exemptions for employees who agree to weekly testing or show they have antibodies from a previous infection, putting it at odds with a bill passed by the Legislature earlier this month that Hutchinson allowed to become law without his signature.
When it takes effect in January, Act 1115 will require employers who have vaccine mandates to provide such exemptions.
Last month, Rutledge signed onto a similar letter, along with 23 other Republican state attorneys general, objecting to a forthcoming federal mandate for businesses with 100 or more employees to require their employees to be vaccinated or regularly tested.
Arkansas’ cumulative count of cases rose Thursday to 511,984.
Dillaha said 15 of the deaths reported Thursday happened within the past month.
Of the others, she said one happened in May, and three were in July.
She said 6.1% of the state’s coronavirus tests were positive during the seven-day span ending Wednesday, the same percentage that was initially reported for the week ending Tuesday and down from a high during the summer of 16.3% in the week ending Aug. 4.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 49, to 27,545.
The number of the state’s virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by two, to 2,899.
According to the CDC, 57.8% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Thursday, up from from 57.7% a day earlier.
The percentage who were fully vaccinated rose by 47.7% as of Wednesday to 47.8%.
Of the Arkansans who were fully vaccinated, 9% had received a booster dose as of Thursday, up from 8.4% a day earlier.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose and 43rd, ahead of Tennessee, Louisiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho and West Virginia, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 66.7% of people had received at least one dose, and 57.6% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 8.1% had received a booster dose.