The post-Thanksgiving rebound in Arkansas' coronavirus cases continued Wednesday, with the state's case count rising by 930 and the number of virus patients in hospitals jumping by 14, to 423.
Arkansas' death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 20, to 8,687.
Noting that public health officials on Wednesday announced the first confirmed case of the omicron variant within the United States, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet that "it's vital we continue to get vaccinated."
"With new cases and hospitalizations higher than last week, the vaccine remains our best tool for protection against the virus," Hutchinson said.
The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have classified omicron, which first emerged in southern Africa last month, as a "variant of concern," citing evidence that it may spread faster than the still-dominant delta variant.
In a notice posted online Wednesday, the Arkansas Health Department advised people to be tested and to quarantine for at least seven days if they have visited any of eight southern African countries -- Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa or Zimbabwe -- within the past two weeks.
Although President Joe Biden restricted travel to the United States from those countries as of Monday, the ban does not apply to U.S. citizens, permanent residents and close relatives of citizens and permanent residents.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said the department has received information so far on 15 people who have arrived in Arkansas after traveling from one of the eight countries.
Through a contractor, General Dynamics Information Technology, the department has been contacting those people to tell them about the recommended precautions.
The steps include taking a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test for the virus immediately after arriving in the United States and three to five days afterward, staying in quarantine for at least seven days regardless of the results, and isolating for 10 days if a test is positive or they develop symptoms.
Dillaha said that to her knowledge, none of the 15 people had tested positive as of Wednesday.
NEW CASES UP
While short of the 1,044 cases that were added Tuesday, the rise in cases on Wednesday was larger by 236 than the one the previous Wednesday, just before Thanksgiving.
Except for Tuesday's spike, it was the largest one-day increase since Sept. 30.
The increase in the number of hospitalized covid-19 patients was the sixth daily rise in a row, bringing the number to its highest level since Oct. 21.
After growing by eight on Tuesday, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators rose Wednesday by one, to 74, its highest level since Nov. 6.
The number who were in intensive care, however, fell by two, to 171, after rising the previous four days.
The number of intensive care beds in the state's hospitals that were unoccupied rose by 33, to 92.
People with covid-19 made up almost 17% of the state's intensive care patients on Wednesday, up slightly from about 16% a day earlier.
The average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose to 563, which was still down a recent high of 647 a day for the week ending Nov. 22, just before a slowdown around Thanksgiving.
With new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 192, to 5,891.
The new-case total on Wednesday continued an upward trend that was initially blamed on infections that occurred during Halloween gatherings and was later fueled in part by transmission within elementary and secondary schools.
With testing going down around Thanksgiving, the state's new cases dipped for several days before shooting back up on Tuesday.
Dillaha said the most recent cases likely include some infections that occurred during Thanksgiving gatherings.
"I think we could for the next week or so see Thanksgiving cases, and then after that it would be additional transmission resulting from the cases that resulted from Thanksgiving," Dillaha said.
The return of students to classrooms this week after the holiday break will likely also contribute to the spread, she said.
While the number of people hospitalized as of Wednesday remained well below the levels it reached during the state's summer surge, which followed the arrival of the delta variant, Dillaha said the patient load could grow large enough to strain the state's hospital capacity if new cases continue rising.
"We're also seeing an increase in the number of outpatient visits for influenza, and we know that influenza also puts people in the hospital, so that could create a problem for us if we're not diligent in taking steps to reduce transmission," Dillaha said.
She said it's not clear yet whether the omicron variant will unseat the delta variant as the dominant strain in the United States and globally.
"If it is true that it out-competes the delta variant, that will happen really quickly," she said.
She said the omicron variant could be identified in Arkansas "any day."
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said in an email that the department sends about 100 positive test samples a week to the University of Minnesota Genomics Center for sequencing to identify coronavirus variants.
With about $1.3 million in federal grant money, the department has also purchased equipment that will allow it to conduct its own sequencing on about 94 samples per week.
McNeill said staff members are being trained on the equipment, and "a go live date has not yet been set."
Other sequencing is conducted by commercial laboratories under contracts with the CDC.
Dillaha said any cases of omicron that are identified in Arkansas will be prioritized for contact tracing.
In the meantime, "we're still encouraging people to become fully vaccinated and get their boosters," Dillaha said.
She noted that the CDC on Monday recommended booster shots for all adults who had their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago.
"I think that's a good strategy, because if the vaccines have reduced effectiveness in preventing infection with the omicron variant, it would benefit people to have their immunity as high as possible," she said.
CASES BY COUNTY
Washington County had the most new cases on Wednesday, 96, followed by Pulaski County with 85 and Benton County with 62.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 529,768.
Dillaha said 12 of the deaths reported Wednesday happened within the past month.
Of the others, four occurred in September and four happened in October.
Dillaha said 8.3% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive over the seven-day span ending Tuesday, down from the 9.3% that was initially reported for the week ending Monday.
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 Wednesday by 49, to 28,447.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by one, to 2,996.
Meanwhile, at 11,711, the increase in the Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered was smaller by more than 2,400 than the increase the previous Wednesday.
Booster shots made up about 49% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 3,075, which was smaller by more than 2,400 than the increase in first doses a week earlier.
After rising a day earlier, the average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling-seven day period fell to 6,899, the first time it had been below 7,000 since the week ending Oct. 26.
The average for first doses fell to 2,284, its lowest level since the week ending Nov. 8.
According to the CDC, 60.6% of Arkansans had received at least one dose as of Wednesday, up from 60.5% a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated rose from 49.3% to 49.4%.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 21.4% had received a booster dose as of Wednesday, up from 21% a day earlier.
Among children ages 5-11, who became eligible for a low-dose version of the Pfizer vaccine last month, the number who had received at least one dose rose by 1,565, to 27,163, representing about 10% of the children in that age group.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 36th in the percentage of its residents of all ages who had received at least one dose and 44th, ahead of Louisiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho and West Virginia, in the percentage who had been fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 70.4% of people had received at least one dose and 59.4% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 21.2% had received a booster dose.