Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Friday by 1,342 -- the second-highest daily increase since February -- while the number of virus patients in the state's hospitals rose by double-digits for the 11th day in a row.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, rose by 11, to 5,992.
State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said Arkansas' virus numbers remained "very concerning," although she found encouragement in an uptick in vaccinations.
According to the Health Department, the number of doses Arkansas providers reported having administered rose by 11,005, the largest daily increase since May 21.
Dillaha said about 80% of the doses were first doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or were of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine -- meaning they went to people who hadn't previously received shots.
"I think that people are beginning to get a better handle on the urgency of the situation with the spread of the delta variant and our low vaccination rate," Dillaha said.
But she noted that an individual isn't considered fully protected until two weeks after the final vaccine dose.
The two Pfizer doses are administered three weeks apart, while Moderna's are administered four weeks apart.
"From my perspective, the covid-19 spread is not going to slow down until we get more people vaccinated, and we need a lot more people vaccinated," Dillaha said.
"We don't have nearly enough immune people in our population to suppress the spread, so even though it may go down a little bit, there's no reason to make it turn around and continue to go down.
"It's going to keep going up until people are immune either through disease or through vaccination."
In a tweet, Gov. Asa Hutchinson also highlighted the uptick in vaccinations.
"We must all work together to get vaccinated in the fight against Covid-19," he said.
He noted that vaccination clinics are being held this weekend at churches in Dardanelle, Texarkana, Mineral Springs and Star City.
ACTIVE CASES RISE
The increase in cases Friday was 187 larger than the one the previous Friday.
Except for a spike of 1,476 cases Tuesday, it was the largest one-day new case total since Feb. 9.
The number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals rose by 12, to 681, its highest level since Feb. 13.
The number who were on ventilators remained for a second day at 119, its highest level since Feb. 12
The number who were in intensive care fell by eight, to 240.
With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 671, to 9,750, its highest level since Feb. 15.
Based on numbers as of Thursday, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rankings on Friday listed Arkansas as the state with the most new cases per capita over a rolling seven-day period for the fourth day in a row.
The 6,933 cases that were added to Arkansas' count during the week ending Thursday translated to a rate of 229.7 per 100,000 residents.
Missouri had the next-highest rate, 205.9 per 100,000 residents, followed by Florida, with 199 per 100,000 residents.
In new covid-19 deaths per 100,000 residents, Arkansas fell from having the second-highest rate, as of a day earlier, to being roughly tied with Maine for having the fifth-highest rate.
Arkansas' 37 deaths reported during the week ending Thursday amounted to a rate of 1.2 per 100,000 residents.
Wyoming continued to have the highest death rate, 1.6 per 100,000 residents. Also topping Arkansas in deaths per 100,000 residents was Nevada, with 1.5; Missouri, with 1.4; and Montana, with 1.3.
With daily covid-19 infections starting to rise nationwide, Dillaha said more states will likely experience surges like Arkansas'.
"I think there are very few states that have high enough vaccination rates to suppress the spread of covid-19, and if they're unfortunate enough like Arkansas to have a strong presence of delta variants, their cases and hospitalizations will take off just like Arkansas' has," she said.
"They may be more successful in implementing some mitigation measures, such as masking and social distancing and so forth, that we're less successful in doing in Arkansas, so that may help them," she added.
Among the Arkansans who have tested positive recently are 37 members of the Arkansas National Guard who reported to Fort Chaffee last week for summer training, said Lt. Col. Brian Mason, a Guard spokesman.
Nineteen of the Guard members tested positive after being tested July 5 at the National Guard Training Support Center in Fort Chaffee, and 18 tested positive after arriving on July 9 at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La., he said.
Through contact tracing, Mason said an additional 80 soldiers were determined to have been in close contact with the infected service members and were quarantined, all ultimately testing negative.
Of the 80, 49 were placed under a four-day quarantine at Fort Chaffee and continued training from the home station. Thirty-one were quarantined at Fort Polk and reintegrated after a 10-day quarantine, Mason said.
A little more than 3,000 Arkansas National Guard members were attending the training in total. Mason was unable to immediately provide numbers on how many of those members had been vaccinated, but said the Arkansas National Guard's overall vaccination rate is about 30%.
He said only unvaccinated service members were required to undergo testing when arriving at the centers, but all were screened with questionnaires and temperature checks at both Fort Chaffee, where they reported for processing, and Fort Polk, where they were transported to from Fort Chaffee.
"We want to ensure everyone that the health and the safety of our soldiers is our first priority through this training," Mason said.
The training is scheduled to last through the first week of August, he said.
According to Health Department figures, the average number of doses administered in Arkansas each day over a rolling seven-day period, including second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, rose Friday to 5,740, its highest level since the final week of May.
CDC figures showed a similar trend.
According to the data, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose increased by an average of 3,380 a day the week ending Friday.
That was the largest average daily increase over a seven-day span since the week ending June 1.
Citing the surge in cases in Arkansas and Missouri, Medical Associates of Northwest Arkansas said this week that it would require its employees to be vaccinated by Sept. 30.
The independent, physician-owned group has more than 730 employees at 22 clinics in Benton, Washington and Boone counties, spokeswoman Bekki Boyd said.
As of Thursday, 83% of employees and 100% of physicians were fully vaccinated, she said.
Last week, Mercy Health System made a similar announcement, setting the same deadline for its employees to be vaccinated.
The Missouri-based health system has hospitals in Rogers, Fort Smith and Berryville.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Friday by 4,031, to 1,313,033, representing about 43.5% of the state's population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 2,080, to 1,062,254, or about 35.2% of the state's population.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 45th in the percentage of its population who had received at least one dose and 49th, ahead of only Mississippi and Alabama, in the percentage who had been fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 55.9% of people had received at least one dose, and 48.4% were fully vaccinated.
CASES BY COUNTY
After dipping a day earlier, the average number of cases added to the state's tallies over a rolling seven-day period rose to 1,017. That was still slightly short of a recent high of 1,023 cases a day the week ending Wednesday.
Of the deaths reported Friday, Dillaha said 10 happened within the past month, and one was in early June.
She said 13.3% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive over a rolling seven-day period as of Thursday, the same percentage that was initially reported for the week ending Wednesday.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the rate below 10%.
Pulaski County had the largest number of new cases, 232, followed by Washington County with 93, and Saline County with 91.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Janie Runkle said the Northwest Arkansas Work Release Center in Springdale had one new case among inmates Friday.
That was the only case at the center that was active as of Friday, she said.
Statewide, the number of people who have ever been hospitalized with confirmed infections rose by 79, to 17,652.
The number who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by seven, to 1,792.
Hutchinson hasn't yet announced steps to increase the state's hospital capacity, as he did during the winter, when the number of patients in the state's hospitals topped 1,300.
In December, the Republican governor said he had made a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the use of 10 beds at the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock for non-veteran covid-19 patients.
Later that month, he announced that two Baptist Health facilities -- the J.A. Gilbreath Conference Center at Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock and a site at Baptist Health-Van Buren -- would be renovated to house a total of 124 coronavirus patients.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said in an email that the "approved mission dates" for the beds at the veterans hospital were Dec. 30 through March 31.
FEMA is expected to pay 75% of the estimated $1,945,500 cost, she said.
She said the agreement for the Baptist Health facilities was from Feb. 1 to April 1.
FEMA is expected to pay the full cost for those beds, which was $1,000 per bed each day, she said.
Baptist Health spokeswoman Cara Wade said the Little Rock and Van Buren sites are now being used to care for patients.
"For example, the J.A. Gilbreath Conference Center is being used for monoclonal antibody infusion to treat COVID-19 patients," Wade said in an email.
Now that the agreements for the beds at the veterans hospital and the Baptist Health sites have expired, McNeill said the state doesn't have any contracts in place to expand the state's capacity to care for covid-19 patients, "but that need is always part of the planning process."
Late last week, the state did reactivate its COVIDComm system, which helps match covid-19 patients with hospitals that have available beds and other resources.
The system had helped facilitate five patient transfers as of Wednesday afternoon, McNeill said.
Information for this article was contributed by Rachel Herzog of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and by Janelle Jessen of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.