Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose by just 253 on Thursday as snowstorms that hit the state this week continued to hamper covid-19 testing and vaccinations.
But after falling for the previous five days, the number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 rose Thursday by 23, to 625.
Meanwhile, officials said the state's supply of vaccine is expected to get another increase next week through a federal program that sends doses primarily to large retail and pharmacy chains.
John Vinson, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said seven pharmacies in the state that are members of the Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network are tentatively expected to receive 9,360 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
That's on top of the 58,150 doses other pharmacies in the state are expected to receive under the state's program to provide initial shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
"By launching this federal program, it gives our state an additional almost 10,000 doses we wouldn't get," Vinson said.
State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said Community Clinic, a community health center based in Springdale, is also expected to start getting 500 doses a week of Moderna vaccine through a separate federal program.
The number of patients who were on ventilators fell Thursday for the third-straight day, dropping from 108 as of Wednesday to 107.
But after falling by 17 on Wednesday, the number of covid-19 patients in intensive care units as of 2 p.m. rose Thursday by eight, to 241.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 10, to 5,323.
"Our vaccine numbers have slowed over the past few days, and we anticipate these numbers to increase once the roads clear up throughout the state," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement.
"We hope that vaccine uptake will continue among those who are eligible. I ask that, once it's your turn, you roll up your sleeve and help protect your community."
Hutchinson announced Tuesday that Arkansas' allocation of vaccine doses from the federal government would again increase next week as manufacturers continue to ramp up production.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state will receive enough of the Pfizer vaccine to provide initial doses to 29,250 people, according to the CDC.
That's an increase of 10,725 initial Pfizer doses compared with what the state was allocated this week.
The state's weekly allocation of initial Moderna vaccine doses has increased over the past few weeks but will remain the same next week, at 28,900.
Of the increase in Pfizer doses, 3,705 are due to the federal government's acknowledgement that providers can get six doses from each vial of the vaccine, instead of the five that had originally been advertised.
The remaining 7,020 additional doses reflects an increase in the number of vials the state will get, from 3,705 this week to 4,875 next week.
Vinson said the seven pharmacies that will receive Pfizer doses through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for Covid-19 Vaccination have all previously received doses through the state program.
They are Collier Drug Store and Medical Arts Pharmacy in Fayetteville, Bryant Family Pharmacy, West Side Pharmacy in Benton, The Pharmacy at Wellington in Little Rock, Smith Drug and Compounding in Hot Springs and Hyde Pharmacy in Paragould.
"We've got experienced pharmacies who have already proven that they can really quickly and in a nimble fashion use every dose they're given through the previous experience with the state allocation," Vinson said. "So when you partner a group like that with a guaranteed additional 10,000 doses, it's a no-brainer.
"It's an opportunity to increase our state supply and more access for patients."
According to its website, the Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network is a "clinically integrated, nationwide organization of local networks whose participating pharmacies are accountable for the care they provide to patients."
Vinson said 3,000 pharmacies nationwide, including 121 in Arkansas, are part of the network.
Dillaha said Walmart stores in Arkansas are also expected to continue receiving 11,600 initial Moderna doses a week through the federal program.
Meanwhile, many vaccination appointments that had been set for this week were rescheduled as a result of the weather.
Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said the department was still waiting on a delivery date to be scheduled for 13,600 initial doses of Moderna vaccine that the state was expected to receive this week.
The state also had not heard when it would receive booster doses of Moderna and Pfizer vaccine that it placed this week.
On its website, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences said it would reopen the drive-thru covid-19 testing clinic on its main campus in Little Rock today, but its public vaccination clinic, in the Freeway Medical Tower, would remain closed.
Most of the Health Department's 94 local health units remained closed Thursday, and the ones that were open were not offering PCR testing.
At The Pharmacy at Wellington, pharmacist and co-owner Brittany Sanders said she had rescheduled 800 or 900 people who had appointments to receive shots this week.
Some appointments were initially moved to today, then rescheduled again in light of the likelihood for travel to remain difficult.
"It's been tough on some of these that have moved twice, but just with the conditions, we didn't think there would be a safe way to do it otherwise," she said.
She said the pharmacy moved some appointments up in anticipation of the snow, administering shots that had originally been scheduled for this week to about 300 people on Saturday.
Other appointments were tentatively rescheduled for this Saturday or early next week.
Meanwhile, the pharmacy was also fielding inquiries from people hoping to benefit from canceled appointments, prompting it to add messages to its Facebook page and recorded phone greeting.
"We do NOT have extra doses or doses left over from people who can't make their appointment," the pharmacy said on its Facebook page.
"This also means that we do not have any 'short notice' lists. Please do not call us about being available to come in on short notice."
"We've had lots and lots of phone calls with people who are eager to get a vaccine that was left by someone," Sanders said.
"We've changed our messaging just so that it's clear that we're not giving any immunizations [this week], and we are holding those doses for the people they were originally scheduled for."
Pharmacists must schedule appointments in groups because of the process involved in administering the shots.
For instance, each vial of Moderna vaccine contains 10 doses that must be used within six hours after the first dose is withdrawn.
"I don't feel that it's fair for us to try to to open a vial and only have four out of the 10 people to make it, and then give the other six away to somebody else," Sanders said.
"So we are trying to do the most fair thing that we can and holding those for the individuals who had the appointments scheduled and rescheduling those people."
In Garland County, pharmacist Michael Butler said he had to reschedule three events at which almost 3,000 people had been scheduled to receive shots.
One of them, at the Garland County fairgrounds in Hot Springs, was moved from Tuesday to Friday, then rescheduled again to Feb. 23.
"We're fielding a lot of calls from people that are just worried," Butler, who owns Village Healthmart No. 1 in Hot Springs Village and several other pharmacies in the state, said. "They're concerned that they've missed it and that their dose may go bad."
He said volunteers use their own cellphones to help reschedule the appointments, so it's important for people who signed up for the shots to answer their phones, even if they don't recognize the phone number.
According to the Health Department, pharmacies and other providers participating in the vaccination effort being coordinated by the state had received 691,525 doses of vaccine as of Thursday morning.
That was an increase of 15,000 doses compared with the number a day earlier.
The doses the providers reported having administered rose by 4,075, to 466,216.
In addition, the Health Department said Walmart, Walgreens and CVS had administered a total of 27,560 doses, an increase of 62 from the total a day earlier.
Walgreens and CVS were allocated 49,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine for residents and workers in Arkansas long-term-care facilities as part of a federal program.
They have since made some of the doses available to eligible members of the broader public after it was discovered that they had more than they needed to cover the facilities.
The number of doses reported to have been delivered and administered includes some booster shots.
The actual number of shots given is higher than the Health Department's figures because providers have three days to report the doses they administer.
The increase in cases on Thursday was less than a fourth the number of cases that were added to the state's tallies the previous Thursday, Feb. 11.
It was the smallest increase since Tuesday, when 177 cases were added.
Dillaha said the relatively small increase in cases on Thursday was likely a result, at least in part, to a reduction in testing.
The Health Department reported that it had received the results of a total of 2,975 polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, and antigen tests of Arkansans that were performed Wednesday.
That was less than a fourth the number of tests the department reported a week earlier.
The increase in the number of hospitalized covid-19 patients could also be at least in part a reflection of the weather, she said.
"I've been concerned that people might be delaying care over the inclement weather, and that may be a sign that there was just a number of people who worsened during that period of time and were able to get to the hospital and were admitted," she said.
With more people at home, she said the spread of the virus has likely continued to slow, even if not by as much as the downturn in the state's daily case increases might suggest, she said.
"Time will tell," she said.
ACTIVE CASES FALL
The cases that were added to the state's tallies Thursday included 141 that were confirmed through PCR tests.
The other 112 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through antigen tests.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 314,445.
That comprised 248,996 confirmed cases and 65,449 probable ones.
The number of cases that were considered active fell by 916, to 7,323, as 1,159 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
Washington County had the largest number of new cases, 42, followed by Benton County, which had 37, Sebastian County, which had 20, Pulaski County, which had 16, and Garland and Independence counties, which each had 10.
None of the new case were among prison and jail inmates, according to the Health Department.
The state's death toll grew by eight, to 4,276, among confirmed cases and by two, to 1,047 among probable cases.
(Lesnick said the results of PCR tests prompted the Health Department to reclassify as confirmed cases some people whose deaths had previously been listed as being among probable cases. That caused the state's count of deaths among probable cases to fall by nine on Wednesday as the deaths were added to the count among confirmed cases.)
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths rose by two, to 2,002.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by 37, to 14,469.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by six, to 1,494.