Tens of thousands of coronavirus vaccine doses that had been set to expire in Arkansas this month appeared to get a reprieve Thursday when Johnson & Johnson announced that the shelf life of its vaccine had been extended by six weeks.
In a news release, the New Jersey company said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had authorized the vaccine to be kept refrigerated for up to 4½ months, instead of just three, "based on data from ongoing stability assessment studies."
In Arkansas, 54,526 Johnson & Johnson doses -- representing 84% of the state's inventory of the single-shot vaccine -- that hadn't been used as of Tuesday had been set to expire this month.
More than three-fourths of those had June 23 expiration dates.
"I think it will give us an opportunity to use more of them," state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said. "I don't know if we will use them all."
Meanwhile, Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Thursday by 289 -- the biggest one-day increase in more than two weeks.
After rising by double digits the previous two days, reaching its highest level in more than two months, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 fell by eight, to 208.
The state death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by two, to 5,856.
"While we saw a decrease in hospitalizations in today's report, the positivity rate is a concern," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"The vaccine continues to be our best weapon in this fight, and doses are available in every Arkansas county."
With demand for vaccinations waning, Arkansas in April began drastically cutting back on its vaccine orders from the federal government as unused doses piled up at pharmacies and hospitals.
Although officials have tried to make sure doses with approaching expiration dates are used first, the state in May lost more than 1,300 doses of Pfizer, 541 doses of Johnson & Johnson and 79 doses of Moderna to expiration.
An additional 767 Johnson & Johnson doses were scheduled to expire Wednesday of this week and hadn't been used as of Tuesday.
Dillaha said any of those that providers hadn't used or discarded could still be used until their new expiration dates.
Even with the extension, she said using all of the Johnson & Johnson doses could still be challenging because it hasn't been as popular recently as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
She said that could be because of reports of a blood-clotting disorder among a small number of women who received the shots that prompted administration of the vaccine to be paused nationwide for about two weeks in April.
"Even though that was extremely rare, I think that may have been enough to cause people to choose alternate vaccines since those other vaccines were available," Dillaha said.
Many of the state's Pfizer doses are also approaching expiration.
As of Tuesday, that included more than 13,000 set to expire this month and more than 135,000 with expiration dates in July.
Compared with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, the state has been using the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines at a faster pace.
In May, for instance, providers administered more than 136,000 Pfizer doses, or about 4,400 per day, and more than 142,000 Moderna doses, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The same month, they administered just 13,517 Johnson & Johnson doses, or about 436 per day.
Of the state's Moderna doses, none have June expiration dates, and only about 1,200 that hadn't been used as of Tuesday were set to expire in July.
Lelan Stice, owner of Doctor's Orders pharmacies in Pine Bluff, White Hall and Star City, called the extension of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine's expiration dates "very good news."
He said some of his Johnson & Johnson doses expired last month, and others had been set to expire in less than two weeks.
Baptist Health spokeswoman Cara Wade said last week that the health system had about 2,000 Johnson & Johnson doses, all of which were set to expire later this month.
"Fortunately, we have not had any vaccine doses expire," Wade said in an email Thursday.
"Extending the expiration date will certainly help us as we continue to use our mobile health unit to make stops in areas of the state where the vaccine is most needed."
To help spur demand, the Health Department starting today will be giving away scratch-off lottery tickets and gift certificates for hunting and fishing licenses to people who get shots at vaccine clinics organized by its office of health equity, Dillaha said.
Hutchinson announced late last month that the rewards -- $20 lottery tickets or two gift certificates worth a total of $21 -- would be available to people who received a vaccine dose May 26 or later.
Initially, people had to take their vaccination card to one of the department's local health units to claim the rewards.
Dillaha said the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care has been distributing lottery tickets at its vaccination clinics for the past week and will soon start giving out the gift certificates.
Local health units have also been distributing the rewards at their vaccination clinics, Dillaha said.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said a total of 1,006 lottery tickets, and 646 Game and Fish Commission gift certificates had been given out as of Thursday.
The total number of vaccine doses that had been administered in the state, including second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, rose Thursday by 6,381.
That was down from the increase Wednesday but up by 35 from the one reported a week earlier.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Thursday by 3,250, to 1,218,544, representing about 40.4% of the state's population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 4,246, to 969,859, or about 32.1% of the population.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 45th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose and 49th, ahead of only Alabama and Mississippi, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 51.9% of people had received at least one dose and 42.6% were fully vaccinated.
UPTICK IN CASES
Thursday's increase in cases was larger by 88 than the one a day earlier and by 92 than the one the previous Thursday.
It was the largest single-day rise since a spike of 329 cases on May 25.
"I think we're seeing spread around the state due to reductions in masking and social distancing among people who have not been vaccinated," Dillaha said.
"I don't have numbers to quantify that, but we're aware that many people are not wearing masks and a large proportion of the people in the state are not vaccinated."
She said some of those people may have become infected during gatherings over Memorial Day weekend.
The uptick in new cases came despite lower daily testing numbers compared with those reported by the Health Department a week earlier.
The department said Thursday that it had received the results of 2,297 tests that were performed Wednesday, down by 375 from the number it reported a week earlier.
The 1,895 polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test results the department had received were down by 159 from a week earlier, while the 402 antigen tests it had received were down by 216.
During a seven-day span ending Wednesday, McNeill said 5.7% of the state's PCR and antigen tests were positive.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the number below 10%.
After falling a day earlier, the average number of cases added to the state's tallies each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 190, its highest level since the week ending May 25.
The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators fell by one, to 39.
The number who were in intensive care fell by two, to 91.
CASES BY COUNTY
The cases that were added to the state's tallies Thursday included 225 that were confirmed through PCR tests.
The other 64 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 343,216.
That comprised 267,875 confirmed cases and 75,341 probable ones.
The number of cases that were considered active rose by 110, to 1,769, as new cases outpaced recoveries.
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 43, followed by Benton and Washington counties, which each had 20.
Craighead and Sebastian counties tied for the next-highest number, with 17 each.
Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department's count of cases rose by two.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said the state's prisons didn't have any new cases Thursday.
The state's death toll rose by one, to 4,647, among confirmed cases and by one, to 1,209, among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths remained at 2,093.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 20, to 16,515.
The number of state virus patients who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by two, to 1,685.