Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Friday by 1,155 -- the third daily increase in a row that was in the quadruple digits.
Already at its highest level since Feb. 26, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by 16, to 497.
The state death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by four, to 5,948.
"I'm not happy," Health Secretary Jose Romero said of the increase in cases.
"They're a little better than yesterday, but we're still over 1,000, and it speaks to where we are, and that is, we're in the middle of a surge," he said.
"This is going to continue until people get vaccinated and voluntarily adopt masking and social distancing" if they haven't been vaccinated.
Friday's increase in cases followed jumps of 1,000 Wednesday and 1,210 Thursday.
Before Wednesday, the last time the state had 1,000 or more new cases in a single day was Feb. 11.
With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of cases that were considered active rose Friday by 673, to 6,605, its highest level since Feb. 18.
After reaching its highest level since early March a day before, however, the number of virus patients who were on ventilators fell by one, to 81.
The number who were in intensive care remained for a second day at 196, its highest level since Feb. 25.
To encourage more Arkansans to get vaccinated, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday met with residents in Cabot in the first of a series of discussions he plans to hold around the state on the virus and vaccines.
On Friday, he announced the dates for next week's meetings, which will be in Batesville, Blytheville and Forrest City.
"A month ago, the number of our active COVID cases and our hospitalizations had declined," Hutchinson said in a statement.
"We were increasing our vaccinations across the state. We were very optimistic about the return to normalcy.
"Then over the past month, our vaccination rate stalled at about 40 percent, and the Delta variant showed up. This right-left punch has sidetracked our return to normalcy."
The meetings will be at 6 p.m. Monday at the Batesville Community Center; Tuesday at noon at the Blytheville High School basketball arena, and at 6 p.m. the same day at the Forrest City Civic Center; and at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Texarkana Arkansas Convention Center.
In keeping with a change implemented last month, the Health Department won't be releasing numbers today or Sunday on the state's cases, deaths, hospitalizations and other indicators, Romero said.
Its next update will be Monday.
'CAUSE FOR ALARM'
In a statement issued Friday, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement's health policy board said Arkansas is "experiencing an escalation of COVID-19 driven by the more infectious Delta variant" that first emerged in India.
"At the same time, Arkansas is one of the least protected states in the nation because of low vaccine uptake. Together, these two facts are cause for alarm, and the result is reflected in the current rise in cases seen across our communities."
Because of reports suggesting the vaccines are less effective against the delta variant than the original coronavirus strain, the board said even those who have been vaccinated "should consider reinstituting defensive measures they may have relaxed, including face masks in public, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing."
Arkansans who haven't been vaccinated "should recognize that because of Arkansas's low vaccination rate, whenever they enter a public place such as a grocery store, entertainment venue, church, or dormitory, they likely are around other unprotected people, and the virus is likely present," the board said.
"The unprotected should get vaccinated today to protect themselves, their families and others around them ― especially because young children are not currently eligible for the vaccine."
People who have recovered from covid-19 infections should get vaccinated because the antibodies developed as a result of infection "do not provide total protection," the board said, and the delta variant appears to be more likely to cause reinfections than the original coronavirus strain.
Noting research indicating that one shot of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines provides "far less" protection against the variant than two shots, it urged people who have received only one dose of those vaccines to receive a second dose "as soon as the protocol allows."
Elected officials, businesses, religious leaders, school officials and other community leaders should "amplify the warning signal of the COVID-19 threat," the board said.
Chaired by retired state Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck, the 23-member board includes St. Bernards Healthcare CEO Chris Barber, Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care CEO Ray Hanley, AARP Arkansas Director Herb Sanderson, and several doctors and other health care and business executives.
Center spokesman John Lyon said the board approved the statement, with no one dissenting, during a meeting held remotely Thursday.
The center's chief executive, former Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson, called the statement an "important call to action."
"As a pediatrician, I want to remind everyone that while adults can choose whether to become protected, children under age 12 are not currently eligible for vaccination and must rely on adults to act responsibly and curb the spread of COVID-19," Thompson said in a news release.
"And with schools and colleges opening in just a few weeks, we have a short window to make sure our children are protected."
He said people infected with the delta variant typically have headaches, runny noses and sore throats, rather than the cough and fever reported by people infected with the original virus strain.
"If you have cold-like symptoms and suspect you may have COVID-19, I urge you to get tested," Thompson said.
Although he's been vaccinated, Romero said he still wears a mask when he goes to stores and other public places.
That included a state revenue office where he and his wife spent about two hours Friday getting a license plate for a car.
Romero said he agrees with the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in most situations, but "if you want to take a little extra insurance out, wear the mask. It's no big deal."
According to data updated by the CDC on Friday, Arkansas had the largest number of covid-19 deaths per capita among the states and District of Columbia during the seven-day span ending Thursday, with its 35 deaths during that span translating to a rate of 1.2 per 100,000 residents.
Arizona and Missouri were roughly tied for the next-highest rate, 0.9 deaths per 100,000 residents.
Arkansas continued to rank just behind Missouri as the state with the largest number of cases per 100,000 residents over a rolling seven-day period.
Even without adjusting for population, Arkansas' 4,220 new cases during the week ending Thursday was the fifth-largest new case total in the country after the ones in Texas, Missouri, California and Louisiana.
"COVID-19 is no joke," Keyur Vyas, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center, said in a tweet.
"The delta variant is burning through Arkansas. Hospitals are full. Vaccines are safe, effective, available, and free. If you aren't yet vaccinated, please get it today. Continue to #MaskUp and #SocialDistance."
"Hospitals are full and the third surge is just gaining momentum," UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, a cardiologist, said in tweet sharing Vyas' post. "COVID-19 admissions @uamshealth are doubling approximately every week right now."
UAMS Medical Center had 41 covid-19 patients Friday, including 15 who were in intensive care, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
Two patients were on ventilators and two were on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machines, which are similar to heart-lung bypass machines used in open-heart surgeries.
About two weeks after opening a 12-bed covid-19 unit -- its first designated unit for coronavirus patients since it closed a 30-bed unit in March -- she said the hospital was considering adding a second unit.
"We're just trying to figure out what to do because the cases keep rising," Taylor said.
She said the hospital's intensive care unit was on "ICU max" status, meaning it wasn't accepting transfers from other hospitals, but added that that wasn't unusual even before the recent surge of covid-19 cases.
"We do have other units that we can convert to ICU if we need to," Taylor said.
She said staffing continues to be one of the hospital's "biggest challenges."
"People are really heroic in their efforts, but they're tired, and so we would call on everyone, if you haven't gotten a vaccine, please get one," Taylor said.
Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock had five covid-19 patients as of Friday, and Arkansas Children's Northwest in Springdale had one, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
Two of the six patients were on ventilators, she said.
She said Arkansas Children's also had 17 employees who tested positive for the virus. It hadn't been notified of any employees who were hospitalized, she said.
About 75% of Arkansas Children's employees have been vaccinated, she said.
In an indication that the virus's spread is continuing to accelerate, 14.7% of the coronavirus tests in the state were positive during the seven-day span ending Thursday, Romero said.
That was up from 11.1% the previous week and 13.9% the week ending Wednesday.
The highest the percentage has reached was 19% during the week ending Jan. 2, Romero said.
"I unfortunately think that next week we're probably going to eclipse that given that we're coming off of the Fourth of July holiday," when unvaccinated people were likely infected during gatherings, Romero said.
According to the CDC, the possible time between infection and when someone develops symptoms ranges from two to 14 days.
Pulaski County had the largest number of new cases Friday with 199, followed by Lonoke County with 66, and White County with 60.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 355,460.
Meanwhile, at 5,170, the increase in the number of vaccine doses that providers reported having administered, including second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, was smaller by almost 100 than the one a week earlier.
Already at its lowest level since at least January, the average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 3,855.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Friday by 3,439, to 1,289,373, representing about 42.7% of the state's population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 2,483, to 1,049,127, or about 34.8% of the population.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 46th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose and 49th, ahead of only Mississippi and Alabama, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 55.3% of people had received at least one dose, and 47.8% were fully vaccinated.
Information for this article was contributed by Jeannie Roberts of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.