After rising by one a day earlier, the number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas hospitals resumed its decline on Wednesday, reaching a new three-month low.
The state's count of cases rose by 672, the ninth daily increase in a row that was smaller than the one a week earlier.
Arkansas' death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, rose by nine, to 8,230.
"New cases, active cases, hospitalizations, and ventilator usage all continue to decline from the previous week in today's report," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"I'm hopeful we'll see additional vaccine boosters made available for Moderna and [Johnson & Johnson] and vaccines available for ages 5-11 soon."
The number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas hospitals fell Wednesday by 10, to 451, its lowest level since July 7.
The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators and in intensive care fell for the third day in a row.
The number on ventilators fell by six, to 123, its lowest level since July 18.
The number in intensive care fell by three, to 199, dropping below 200 for the first time since July 10.
The number of intensive care unit beds that were unoccupied rose by five, to 170.
People with covid-19 made up about 19% of all the state's patients in intensive care, down slightly from about 20% a day earlier.
Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said the state's virus numbers are "trending in the direction we want."
"It's not a very steep slope, but I think it's downward," she said.
CONGRESSMEN SEND LETTER
Also on Wednesday, Arkansas' four congressmen sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging him not to mandate covid-19 vaccinations for children -- a day after Cardona indicated he had no plans to do so.
"Though we share your and the President's desire to ensure that all school children are learning in a safe and healthy environment, we see no reason for the federal government to insert itself in the middle of this contentious issue," Arkansas' U.S. Reps. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, Steve Womack of Rogers, French Hill of Little Rock and Rick Crawford of Jonesboro, all Republicans, said in the letter.
"The Arkansas State Legislature, the Arkansas Department of Education, the Arkansas Department of Health, and the many school boards, parents, and teachers throughout the state are more than capable of working together to make the right decisions for Arkansas' students."
Asked about the possibility of vaccine requirements for public school attendance, Cardona said on CNN Tuesday, "Those decisions on vaccination requirements are state decisions."
"The federal government -- I don't have a role in vaccination mandates, but what I will tell you, as I said earlier, we know what works," Cardona told anchor Alisyn Camerota.
"We know that when children are protected with the vaccine, they're less likely to have serious symptoms of covid-19, and we know that spread is less.
"So I encourage all who are eligible to get vaccinated, to help not only protect yourself but to protect your community."
White House covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients gave a similar answer Wednesday when asked about the issue during a briefing with reporters.
"School vaccination requirements have been around for decades, and those decisions should be made at the state and local level," Zients said.
"We know that in general requirements work, and we support states and school districts taking actions to ensure that everyone who's eligible get vaccinated."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all 50 states have laws requiring students to be vaccinated against certain diseases.
Earlier this month, California became the first state to announce plans to add a requirement for the covid-19 vaccine.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said his state would mandate the shots for students in grades seven through 12 starting in July, assuming the Pfizer vaccine for children age 12-15 is fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for that age group by then.
Currently, the vaccine is fully approved for people 16 and older and allowed under an emergency use authorization for children ages 12-15.
Some school districts in California have also announced their own vaccine requirements.
In Arkansas, Dillaha said, the list of vaccines required for school attendance is set by the state Board of Health and submitted to the Legislature for approval as part of the administrative rule-making process.
Act 977, signed by Hutchinson in April, prohibits state and local government entities from requiring covid-19 vaccinations, however.
Westerman said in a statement that the congressmen sent the letter because President Joe Biden's administration "has made very clear that it supports overreaching federal vaccine mandates and has no problem infringing on the liberties of individuals and businesses."
He noted the FDA is expected to decide soon whether to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for children age 5-11. He said that opens the door "for such a mandate in school aged children."
"This letter makes clear – before the Biden Administration can impose additional overreaching mandates on Arkansans – that these decisions are most appropriate and effective when determined by state legislatures and health departments in consultation with families and school boards, as they always have," Westerman said.
DEATHS TREND YOUNGER
Meanwhile, data provided by the Health Department on Wednesday further illustrated the differences between the state's winter surge in covid-19 cases and the more recent one driven by the highly transmissible delta variant.
The department compared the outcomes in people who were infected from late October 2020 to late January 2021 with those for people infected from early July of this year to late last week.
Likely because of the higher rate of vaccinations among people age 65 and older, the impact of the summer surge on that age group was less severe than the winter one.
For instance, the percentage of the covid-19 deaths among Arkansans age 65 and older fell from 83.1% during the winter surge to 58.4% in the summer.
The average age of those who died fell from about 76 in the winter to about 67.
Across all age groups, the percentage of infections that resulted in deaths fell from 1.8% to 1.3%.
But the percentage who were hospitalized rose slightly from 4.6% in the winter to 5%.
"There's a lot more younger people that are getting just as sick as the older people got in the winter peak," Dillaha said.
She said another thing that stood out was the percentage of people admitted to the hospital who died. That percentage fell from 19% during the winter surge to 15.1%. Dillaha said that was possibly because of better treatments now available.
Many of the deaths, including more than half of those that occurred during the winter surge, appeared to have occurred among people who were never hospitalized.
"Especially in the winter months a lot of the deaths were older, so they may have been nursing home patients who didn't go to the hospital," Dillaha said.
That could happen, for example, if the resident was in hospice care or had other medical problems and didn't want invasive procedures to be performed.
"It's not appropriate for someone who's at the end of their life, in some cases, to put them on a ventilator," Dillaha said.
ACTIVE CASES FALL
The increase in cases on Wednesday was smaller by 22 than the one the previous Wednesday.
Already at its lowest level since the week ending July 7, the average daily increase over a rolling seven-day period fell to 559.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 508,431.
With recoveries and deaths outpacing new cases, the number of cases in the state that were considered active, already at its lowest level since July 7, fell by 72, to 5,781.
Benton County had the most new cases on Wednesday, 64, followed by Washington County, which had 63, and Pulaski County, which had 52.
Dillaha said one of the deaths reported Wednesday happened in July, and the rest occurred within the past month.
She said 7.2% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive during the seven-day span ending Tuesday, up from the 7.1% that was initially reported for the week ending Monday. Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose Wednesday by 65, to 27,309.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by 10, to 2,864.
At 6,332, the increase in vaccine doses that providers reported having administered was smaller by more than 600 than the one the previous Wednesday.
After rising the previous two days, the average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 5,653.
Of the most recently reported doses, 38% were third doses, including booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine for people who received their second dose at least six months ago.
First doses, including the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, made up 28% of the increase.
Second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines accounted for the remaining 34%.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose remained at 56.8% on Wednesday while the percentage who were fully vaccinated rose from 46.9% to 47%.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose and 44th, ahead of Louisiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho and West Virginia, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 66.1% of people had received at least one vaccine dose, and 57.1% had been fully vaccinated.