The numbers of covid-19 patients in Arkansas who were hospitalized and in intensive care continued falling Friday, reaching new three-month lows, as health care providers began administering vaccine booster shots to a wider group of people.
The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators, however, rose slightly after falling the previous four days.
The state's count of cases rose by 622, the 11th daily increase in a row that was smaller than the one a week earlier.
Arkansas' death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 18, to 8,255.
"We saw an increase going into the weekend with active cases going up slightly," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"Our hospitalizations continue to fall, a positive sign for relief on our healthcare system. Please, get vaccinated as that is the best way we can continue to limit this virus."
The number of covid-19 patients who were hospitalized in the state fell by 24, to 414, while the number who were in intensive care fell by five, to 175.
The last time either number had been that low was July 5.
The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators rose by two, to 123, which was still less than a third of the all-time high the number reached in August.
The number of intensive care unit beds that were unoccupied rose by eight, to 205, with covid-19 patients continuing to make up about 18% of all the state's patients in intensive care.
The increase in the state's case count was smaller by 92 than the one the previous Friday.
Already at its lowest level since the week ending July 6, the average increase over a rolling seven-day period fell to 507.
With new cases outnumbering recoveries and deaths, however, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 33, to 5,694, after falling the previous five days.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said the state's covid-19 numbers seem to be trending in the right direction.
"I'm hoping we can keep it up for a long time," she said.
Following an advisory committee's recommendation, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Thursday evening endorsed booster shots for certain people who received their second dose of the Moderna vaccine at least six months ago and anyone who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago.
For people who received Moderna, the boosters are recommended for those age 65 or older as well as other adults who live in long-term care settings, work or live in places putting them at risk of exposure to covid-19 or who have health conditions putting them at risk of severe complications from the virus.
According to CDC data, more than 600,000 Arkansans have received two doses of Moderna, including more than 311,000 who received their second dose at least six months ago.
The latter group includes more than 168,000 Arkansans who are 65 or older.
Because of the phased way Arkansas extended vaccine eligibility to priority groups, most of the others who received their second doses of Moderna that long ago would also meet the CDC's criteria for boosters.
People meeting the same criteria who received their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago became eligible for boosters late last month.
In addition, more than 100,000 Arkansans have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, including about 90,000 who were vaccinated at least two months ago.
The CDC's endorsement on Thursday allows people to receive any of the three vaccines as a booster shot, regardless of the kind they previously received.
The Pharmacy at Wellington in Little Rock began accepting appointments for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines through its website Thursday evening.
Pharmacist Susan Schee said all the available appointment slots were filled for Friday and today, but some were still available as early as Monday.
She said the response was "about the same" as after the Pfizer boosters were endorsed by the CDC on Sept. 24.
"There's a lot of interest as soon as it's announced," she said.
"People start booking, and then it slows down after the first week."
She said the pharmacy hadn't given any Johnson & Johnson boosters as of Friday afternoon.
Most of those getting Moderna boosters, who were primarily people 65 or older, were sticking with Moderna for their booster shot, she said.
She stressed that the pharmacy is only administering the boosters by appointment.
"It is flu shot season as well, and so just for congestion's sake it's better for us to be able to plan out the flow of people coming to get shots," she said.
John Vinson, CEO of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said most other pharmacies around the state also began administering boosters to the newly eligible group on Friday.
He said the number of doses being administered was likely double what it had been recently.
"I think it's a busy day -- phones ringing off the hooks and lots of requests and lots of shots being given, but I wouldn't say it's mass chaos like it was early on" during the initial vaccine roll-out, he said.
He said pharmacies are also working to administer boosters to nursing home residents, most of whom received the Moderna vaccine.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences announced that it will offer Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters starting Monday at its vaccine clinic at 401 S. Monroe St. in Little Rock.
Appointments, which can be made by calling (501) 686-8960, are recommended but not required.
Dillaha said the Health Department's local health units will start offering the boosters by appointment next week.
CASES BY COUNTY
Benton County had the most new cases on Friday, 77, followed by Pulaski County, which had 57, and Sebastian County, which had 35.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 509,559.
Dillaha said all the deaths reported Friday happened within the past month.
She said 6.6% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive during the seven-day span ending Thursday, down from 7.1% the week ending Wednesday and a high during the summer of 16.3% the week ending Aug. 4.
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 Friday by 24, to 27,361.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by five, to 2,877.
At 5,583, the increase in the Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that providers had administered was smaller by more than 1,400 than the one a week earlier.
The department's count did not yet include doses administered Friday, however, when providers began administering the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters.
After rising a day earlier, the average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 5,572.
Of the doses that were most recently reported, 48% were third doses, including Pfizer boosters.
Third doses of Pfizer and Moderna were also authorized in August for certain people with compromised immune systems.
The number of Arkansans who had received a third dose topped 100,000 on Friday, rising by 2,697, to 101,786.
First doses made up about 25% of the total increase in doses providers reported having administered in Arkansas as of Friday.
Second doses accounted for the remaining 27%.
According to the CDC, 57.5% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Friday, up from 56.9% a day earlier.
The percentage who were fully vaccinated rose from 47.1% to 47.5%.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose.
In the percentage who were fully vaccinated, it ranked 43rd, ahead of Tennessee, Louisiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho, and West Virginia.
Nationally, 66.2% of people had received at least one dose, and 57.3% were fully vaccinated.