An upswing in new coronavirus infections continued in Arkansas for a third day Thursday as the state's count of cases rose by 383.
After falling a day earlier, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by three, to 282, just short of the recent high of 285 it reached Tuesday.
The state death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by three, to 5,890.
"Today is the third day with a report of greater than 380 new COVID-19 cases in Arkansas," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"This has been driven mostly by two factors: lack of vaccinations & the COVID variants. Vaccines are effective against the most prevalent variant in the state & are available across Arkansas."
While smaller than the increases in cases the previous two days, Thursday's was almost as big as the one Wednesday, and it was bigger by 95 than the one the previous Thursday.
Over the past seven days, the state's total case count has risen by 2,007, the first increase over the course of a week that has topped 2,000 since mid-March.
With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose Thursday by 129, to 2,850, its highest level since March 16.
The number of covid-19 patients on ventilators rose by three, to 70, its highest level since March 10.
The number of patients in intensive care also rose by three, to 125.
With its number of covid-19 patients on the rise, UAMS Medical Center plans to open a designated unit for such patients for the first time since it closed a 30-bed covid unit in March.
The hospital hopes to have a 14-bed covid unit with negative airflow rooms open by this weekend, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
"We try to keep them together as much as possible, because that way you don't have people who are treating covid patients going in and treating other patients, so it's just better if we have them all together," Taylor said.
On Thursday, the hospital had 22 covid-19 patients, up from nine just two weeks earlier.
Eight of the patients on Thursday were in intensive care, up from five on Tuesday.
Until the covid-19 unit opens, the patients are being kept in negative airflow rooms in other areas of the hospital.
"We'll have to move patients that are [in the 14-bed unit] now that are not covid patients, and then we're still going to be near capacity" because of a large number of non-covid-19 patients in the hospital and a 28-bed wing undergoing renovations, Taylor said.
She said the renovations to the wing are expected to be finished next month.
The increase in covid-19 patients "couldn't have come at a worse time with everything we've got going on, but we'll make it work," she said.
She added that the university's vaccine clinic in Little Rock has been giving about 100 or 200 shots a week, down from 500 a day in March.
"The numbers are too low," she said.
TRACKING THE VARIANT
State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha has said she suspects the delta variant that first emerged in India is responsible for this week's escalation in new cases.
On Thursday, she said the Health Department had learned of at least 18 more cases since Saturday that were caused by the variant, bringing the total in the state to at least 50.
Because only a small percentage of specimens are sent to laboratories that can determine whether a case was caused by a variant, the total number of cases caused by variants is unknown.
As of Saturday, Dillaha said, the delta variant had been found to have caused five cases in Saline County, three each in Pulaski and Benton counties and two in Crawford County.
Baxter, Chicot, Cleburne, Grant, Greene, Hot Spring, Lonoke, Ouachita, Phillips and Washington counties each had at least one such case.
The county of residence for several other people found to have been infected by the variant wasn't available, Dillaha said.
"It's everywhere by now, I'm pretty convinced," she said.
Given the increase in cases this week, she said the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 may continue going up.
She said it normally takes seven to 10 days after someone tests positive to become sick enough to be hospitalized, but she's heard reports that "people end up in the hospital a little faster if they have the delta variant."
Arkansas' uptick in cases and hospitalizations followed a surge in southwestern Missouri that was also blamed on the delta variant and low vaccination rates.
In Baxter County, which borders Missouri, the number of active cases has more than tripled, to 110, since Monday.
The number on Thursday was the sixth-highest in Arkansas, even though the county ranks 17th in population.
Stone County, just to the south of Baxter, had 73 active cases as of Thursday.
With a population of 12,506, the cases translated to a rate of 58 per 10,000 residents, the highest in the state.
Nevada County in southwestern Arkansas had the next highest rate, 33 per 10,000 residents, followed by Baxter County, which had 26 per 10,000 residents.
According to The Associated Press, the doctor leading the University of Oklahoma's coronavirus response said Thursday that the surge in southwestern Missouri is likely responsible for an increase in cases in his state.
"I think that delta (variant) that's causing the big outbreak in southwest Missouri is making its way down" Interstate 44 and into neighboring northeastern Oklahoma, where the most new daily virus cases are occurring, Dr. Dale Bratzler of OU Health said.
Along with its new cases and hospitalizations, the percentage of Arkansas' coronavirus tests that are positive, known as the positivity rate, has been on the rise, indicating that virus' spread isn't slowing.
After falling to a low for the year of 2.4% in late March, the rate over a rolling seven-day period had risen to 8.2% as of Wednesday, the highest since February.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the rate below 10%.
UNVACCINATED AT RISK
Dillaha said the vaccination of nursing home residents, health care workers and others at high risk of catching the virus contributed to a decline in infections after new cases and hospitalizations peaked in January.
Masking and social distancing also helped keep the spread of the virus in check, she said.
"Now, we have moved away from masking and social distancing. The highest-risk groups have gotten vaccinated, but now we have more of these dangerous variants in circulation," she said.
"These are so much more infectious than the previous ones, in order to reduce the spread in the community, you have to have a much higher level of immunity in the population, and we have nowhere near that level in Arkansas."
She said she expects the delta variant to "continue to spread in those communities that, in a sense, were able to avoid the previous variants."
"I think this delta variant is so much more infectious that it will find the pockets of people who are not immune and cause outbreaks," she said.
Previously, in communities where people weren't vaccinated, "it's possible there was enough masking and social distancing taking place, given the level of infectiousness of previous variants, they were able to avoid it," she said.
"Now with people not vaccinated and not engaging in masking and social distancing, the variant is so much more infectious, it is likely to find them."
FEWER GETTING SHOTS
On Thursday, however, the pace of vaccinations in the state continued to show signs of slowing.
At 5,189, the increase in doses that providers reported having administered, including second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, was smaller by almost 200 than the one the previous Thursday.
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 4,526.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Thursday by 2,464, to 1,248,617, representing about 41.4% of the state's population.
The number who were fully vaccinated rose by 2,568, to 1,013,056, or about 33.6% 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 dose and 49th, ahead of only Alabama and Mississippi, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 53.7% of people had received at least one dose, and 45.6% were fully vaccinated.
CASES BY COUNTY
The cases that were added to Arkansas' tallies on Thursday included 253 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.
The other 130 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 346,952.
That comprised 270,238 confirmed cases and 76,714 probable ones.
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 56, followed by Benton County, which had 26, Jefferson County, which had 25, Saline County, which had 23, Baxter County, which had 22, and Faulkner County, which had 20.
In Fayetteville, the Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center had one new case among inmates, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said.
That was the only case at the lockup that was active as of Thursday, she said.
The state's death toll rose by three, to 4,677, among confirmed cases and remained at 1,213 among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths remained at 2,092.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized with confirmed infections in the state grew by 21, to 16,801.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by one, to 1,713.