Dropping for the 10th straight day, the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas fell Friday by 75, bringing it below 1,000 for the first time since late July.
The state's count of cases rose by 1,809, the third daily increase in a row that was smaller than the one a week earlier and the seventh one in a row that was smaller than 2,000.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 17, to 7,412.
"For the sixth day in a row, the number of active COVID cases has decreased," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"Our hospitalizations are also at the lowest point since late July. We're continuing to move in the right direction, and we need everyone's help to stay on that path."
After rising the previous two days, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators fell by eight, to 298.
The number who were in intensive care, however, rose for the third straight day, going from 456 as of Thursday to 469.
But the number of intensive care beds statewide that were unoccupied rose by one, to 36, as a result of a reduction in the number of non-covid-19 patients who were in intensive care.
Covid-19 patients made up about 42% of all people in intensive care Friday, up from about 41% a day earlier.
The plunge in the number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 was the second-largest in a single day since the state's first case was diagnosed in March 2020.
The largest was a drop of 86 patients on Jan. 20.
The decrease Friday brought the number to 999, its lowest level since July 26.
"It's still pretty high, but it's progress in the right direction," said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer.
Over the past month, the number of people hospitalized has fallen from an all-time high of 1,459 on Aug. 16.
As of Friday, it was smaller by 372 than its peak in January during the state's winter surge.
The number of covid-19 patients who were in intensive care was still down from an all-time high of 558 on Aug. 23 but larger by 11 than its peak in January.
The number on ventilators, while down from its high of 388 late last month, remained larger by 30 than its January peak.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center had 40 covid-19 patients Friday, which was down from more than 70 in late July and early August.
The patients Friday included 15 who were in intensive care, 11 who were on ventilators and one who was on a heart-lung bypass machine, UAMS spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
Six of the 40 patients had been fully vaccinated.
Arkansas Children's Hospital had 15 covid-19 patients, down from a peak of 31 on Aug. 13, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
She said five of the patients were in intensive care, and three were on ventilators. None of the patients had been fully vaccinated, although one was partially vaccinated, DeMillo said.
She said all of the patients were at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock. Arkansas Children's Northwest in Springdale didn't have any covid-19 patients Friday.
Hospitals in Washington and Benton counties had a total of 101 covid-19 patients Friday, down from an all-time high of 173 on Aug. 11, Martine Pollard, a spokeswoman for Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers, said in a statement.
The average age of the patients Friday was 42, and the youngest was 19.
"Today, of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, approximately 81% are not vaccinated," Pollard said. "The few that are vaccinated are elderly or have debilitating health conditions."
Also Friday, the state Board of Corrections voted to extend a mask mandate in state prisons for another month, although some members requested more information on covid-19 immunity within the prison system.
The board approved a request by Department of Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves to extend the mandate through Oct. 15.
Graves said that since Aug. 16, the positivity rate among inmates has increased from 2.9% to 7.7% as of Sept. 7.
The state's prisons had 132 active cases as of Friday afternoon.
"While inmate/resident cases are largely contained to intake, we are seeing breakthrough community spread across the system," Graves said in a memo to the board.
"Good hygiene practices, vigilant symptom screening, wearing cloth face masks (if not contraindicated), and social distancing are critical to mitigating the risk of further transmission."
Graves said 9,937 inmates and 2,632 department employees have been vaccinated.
The department had about 4,500 employees as of late July and an average daily inmate population in June of 16,339.
Last month, a couple of board members were hesitant to continue extending the mask mandate.
Graves said in the memo that 21 inmates collectively filed a lawsuit against a number of people, including each Board of Corrections member, concerning the department's handling of covid-19 in 2020.
"As we continue to respond to the spread of covid-19 in our facilities, the concern over this type of litigation is unfortunately still on the horizon," he said.
"Remaining vigilant in our efforts will not only protect our offender populations, but will also protect the Department in any ongoing future litigation on this topic."
Board Chairman Benny Magness asked for information on inmates and staff members who might have immunity from the coronavirus after recovering from an infection.
Graves said he would try to gather the information.
Act 1002, passed by the Legislature this year, prohibited most state and local government entities from requiring people to wear masks, but it excluded the state prison system.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox on Aug. 6 blocked the law from being enforced while a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is pending.
NEW CASES DECLINE
Friday continued the state's longest streak without a daily increase of more than 2,000 cases since July 24, when the state reported more than 2,000 new cases in a single day for the first time since early February.
Since July 24, the state hadn't gone more than three days without a one-day increase of more than 2,000.
The average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period fell to 1,515, its lowest level since July 26.
Already at its lowest level since July 28, the number of cases that were considered active fell by 93, to 16,308, as recoveries and deaths outpaced new cases.
Dillaha said she hopes the downward trend in new cases will continue, but she worries that the state will have a resurgence, either from the delta variant, which has been blamed for the current wave of infection, or from a different variant.
The state still doesn't have enough immunity, from people who have been fully vaccinated or who recently recovered from infections, to prevent outbreaks from occurring, she said.
"If we back off the current practices or strategies of masking and social distancing, quarantine -- it's potentially possible that if we backed off enough on those, we would have an increase in spread of the delta variant in communities around the state," she said.
Another concern is the combination covid-19 and the flu this winter, a situation that will be less worrisome if people get vaccinated against the flu as well as against the coronavirus.
"I think it's going to be important to continue to do what we can to lessen the strain on our hospital systems, and those are two very important strategies -- flu shots and covid-19 shots -- to keep people out of the hospital," she said.
Dillaha said it's also important for Arkansans to know that booster shots for people who were fully vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines won't be widely available next week, despite plans that federal officials announced a month ago.
On Friday, an advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended that boosters for people who received the Pfizer vaccine be authorized only for people who are 65 and older or who are at high risk for severe covid-19 who received their second doses at least six months ago.
If approved by the FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those boosters likely won't start to be given until late next week or the week after, Dillaha said.
Federal officials are still reviewing data on the possible need for a booster of Moderna's vaccine. Johnson & Johnson has not yet submitted an application to the FDA for authorization of a booster for its single-shot vaccine.
Third doses of Pfizer and Moderna were authorized last month for certain people with compromised immune systems.
Two state lawmakers said Friday that they want more emphasis on monoclonal antibody therapy.
More than 160 sites in 61 counties provide the treatment, the Health Department said in a document provided to the Legislative Council.
For the 14 counties without sites, the surrounding counties provide coverage and take appointments.
The sites, with addresses and phone numbers, are listed on the department's website, healthy.arkansas.gov.
During a council meeting Friday, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, called the treatment a "game changer" that isn't being emphasized enough.
"We are missing the messaging on if we get covid, if you test positive for it, you have the ability to get treatment that will prevent you from a hospitalization and prevent you practically dying," she said.
"I can tell you from personal experience it saved my parents' lives. They're 85 and 87," Irvin said. "I really appreciate all the facilities and the places that are providing this treatment to our citizens."
As soon as a person tests positive for covid-19, that person should seek monoclonal antibody therapy, she said.
"This will keep our ICU beds open for heart attacks and everything else if people get treatment before they get too sick and have to go into the hospital," Irvin said.
The Health Department said it has provided seminars on the treatment to the Arkansas Medical Society, the American College of Physicians, the Arkansas Hospital Association, Arkansas Pharmacists Association and numerous long-term-care facilities.
It said it has fielded hundreds of phone calls from various providers and facilities.
"Due to these efforts, there has been a continued increase in [monoclonal antibody treatment] utilization in the state with rapid expansion of facilities utilizing this therapy in a variety of settings," the department said in the document.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said he's been "getting calls about people that say they have asked for this, and they are not getting it."
One call was from an individual in south Arkansas who tested positive for covid-19 and asked for a monoclonal antibody infusion.
A doctor told him that he didn't qualify for that.
"So he ended up going on this search, which I think many of our members are experiencing with constituents calling us and asking us for help to get to somebody or some facility," Rapert said.
The Health Department's deputy state health officer, Naveen Patil, said "almost anyone who tests positive can get" the therapy as long as they are at least 12 years old.
"We are making a push to educate the public and educate the providers," he said.
According to the Health Department's website, the treatments are available to non-hospitalized patients with mild to moderate symptoms within 10 days of the symptoms' onset and who are at high risk from complications from covid-19.
Risk factors include being over 65, overweight or pregnant, or having health conditions including diabetes or heart disease.
"Other medical conditions or factors (for example, race or ethnicity) may also place individual patients at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19," according to the site.
Rapert complained of "a dearth of focus on the treatments, as compared to last year when we didn't have some of these available, and they weren't widely known."
State Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, questioned why there is no treatment site in Miller County.
"We would provide education to any provider in Texarkana" that wants to provide monoclonal antibody infusion, Patil said.
"That would be great, because the physicians are telling me they have heard nothing from you," Dalby said.
Although a few public schools earlier this week announced shifts to virtual instruction because of covid-19 cases or quarantines, no additional shifts were reported Friday, said Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The Little Rock School District reported that six students had tested positive in the 24-hour period ending at 3 p.m. Friday.
An additional one employee and 41 students, including 20 at J.A. Fair College Preparatory, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school, were required to quarantine after being near an infected person.
Over the past week, the district said 35 students and seven staff members had tested positive, and 201 students and three staff members were required to quarantine.
Of the quarantines, 146 affecting students and two affecting employees were because of potential exposures on campus.
According to rankings Friday by the CDC, Arkansas' number of new cases per capita in the seven-day span ending Thursday was the country's 19th-highest, down from the 17th-highest the week ending Wednesday.
Arkansas continued to have the fifth-highest number of new deaths per capita over seven days, although Alabama replaced Mississippi as the state with the fourth-highest rate.
Idaho had the highest rate Friday, followed by Georgia and Louisiana.
Within Arkansas, Washington County had the most new cases Friday with 304, followed by Pulaski County with 133, and Benton County with 120.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 482,743.
Dillaha said all of the deaths reported Friday happened within the past month.
She said 10.5% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive in the seven-day span ending Thursday, down from the 11.9% that were initially reported for the week ending Wednesday and a recent high 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 grew by 81, to 25,418.
The number who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by 11, to 2,590.
Meanwhile, at 7,208, the increase in vaccine doses that providers reported having administered, including second and third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, was the third one in a row that was smaller than the one a week earlier.
The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 6,474, its lowest level since July 19.
Of the doses reported Friday, Dillaha said 2,541 were first doses, 4,239 were second doses and 419 were third doses for people with compromised immune systems.
Information on the dose number was unavailable for nine of the doses, she said.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Friday by 2,741, to 1,656,649, representing about 54.9% of the state's population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 4,333, to 1,336,396, or about 44.3% of the population.
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 and 42nd, ahead of Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Idaho, Wyoming and West Virginia, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 63.6% of people had received at least one dose, and 54.4% were fully vaccinated.
Information for this article was contributed by Stephen Simpson and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.