The number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas hospitals fell below 900 for the first time in two months Friday as people 65 and older, health care workers, teachers and others lined up for booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine.
The state's count of cases rose by 1,365, the 10th 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 13, to 7,561.
The numbers of covid-19 patients in Arkansas who were hospitalized and those on ventilators both fell Friday for the fourth straight day.
The number hospitalized fell by 62, to 894, its lowest level since July 24.
The number on ventilators fell by by 23, to 231, its lowest level since July 31.
The number of covid-19 patients who were in intensive care fell for the fifth day in a row, going from 414 on Thursday to 386. It was the first time that number had been below 400 since July 30.
"It's very nice to be on the downward trend," said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer.
Early Friday, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, endorsed an advisory committee's recommendation that booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine be given to people who received their second doses at least six months ago and are 65, residents of long-term care facilities or adults with medical conditions putting them at risk for severe covid-19.
Breaking with the committee's recommendation, Walensky said the boosters can also be given to people 18-64 at exposure to the virus because of their jobs or because they live in an institutional setting.
In a tweet, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is 70 and has said he planned to get a booster dose, called Walensky's decision "a step in the right direction."
"I'm hopeful additional booster doses will be approved in the very near future for anyone who is vaccinated," Hutchinson said.
According to CDC data, more than 680,000 Arkansans have received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, including about 170,000 who received their second dose at least six months ago.
Because of the phased way Arkansas extended vaccine eligibility to priority groups, most if not all people who received their second doses at that time would meet the CDC's criteria for boosters.
Kavanaugh Pharmacy in Little Rock started taking appointments for the boosters last month, after federal officials announced that additional shots could begin this week.
The pharmacy administered about 150 boosters Friday morning at its vaccine center near the store, co-owner Anne Pace said.
"I think a lot of people have been very scared about the delta variant and what their immunity looks like against that, since we are seeing so many breakthrough cases," Pace said.
"People have been excited to feel like they can maybe start again to be more comfortable with doing some of their everyday living, whether it's traveling, getting together with friends and family -- people are excited to do it and ready to do it, especially a lot of those health care workers, so they can continue taking care of their patients."
According to the Health Department, 17.3% of the cases in the state that were active as of Friday were among people who were fully vaccinated.
Such breakthrough infections have accounted for 12.3% of the state's cases, 10% of its hospitalizations and 12.4% of its deaths from covid-19 since Feb. 1. Vaccinations started Dec. 14.
In Jonesboro, Woodsprings Pharmacy administered booster doses Friday at a church gymnasium across the street from the store, said Brittney Johnson, the pharmacy's operations manager.
About 200 more people had appointments for today, she said.
"This is the same group of people that were so excited to get their shots the first time," Johnson said. "They are 100% into whatever they need to do to protect themselves and protect their loved ones, and they are eager to get an additional dose if that's going to offer additional protection."
She said most of the people who came for boosters Friday morning were 65 or older.
"This afternoon, we've seen a lot of our school staff," Johnson said. "Once school let out, they headed right over."
She said the pharmacy was encouraging people to get an annual flu shot at the same time, and many did.
"Especially the 65-plus" age group, Johnson said. "They want that flu coverage, and they want that covid coverage."
John Vinson, chief executive of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said about 600 pharmacies in the state offer covid-19 vaccines, and about half of those carry Pfizer.
Most of the ones that have Pfizer started offering boosters Friday, although some were waiting for more details on the CDC recommendation.
"It was pretty hopping" on Friday, Vinson said. "It was busy."
He said he's telling pharmacies: "Don't overthink this. The majority of people are going to qualify" because the criteria are so broad.
Although most nursing homes and other long-term care facilities received the Moderna vaccine during the initial rollout, Vinson said pharmacies are working with the facilities to provide boosters for residents and workers who received Pfizer.
Dillaha said the Pfizer boosters will be available by appointment at the department's local health units around the state starting Monday.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will also be offering boosters along with flu shots starting Monday at its clinic at 401 S. Monroe St. in Little Rock.
St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro also announced Friday that it had started offering Pfizer boosters.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said the state's health care providers had about 240,000 doses of Pfizer as of Friday, and the department ordered 45,000 more for next week.
Third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were authorized last month for certain people with compromised immune systems. Federal officials are still reviewing data on whether others who have received two doses of Moderna should get a booster.
Johnson & Johnson has not yet submitted an application for authorization of a booster for its single-shot vaccine.
Friday's increase in cases was smaller by 444 than the one the previous Friday.
Already at its lowest level since the week ending July 21, the state's average daily increase in cases over a rolling seven-day period fell to 1,211.
With recoveries and deaths outpacing new cases, the number of cases in the state that were considered active fell by 256, to 13,245.
It was the 13th straight day that the state's active case total had fallen.
According to CDC rankings Friday, Arkansas' number of new cases per 100,000 residents in the seven-day span ending Thursday was the country's 21st-highest, up from the 22nd-highest the week ending Wednesday.
Arkansas' number of cases per 100,000 residents fell from 305 to 296, but Texas' rate fell even further.
In new deaths, Arkansas went from having having the 11th-highest rate to the 13th-highest as the number per 100,000 residents fell from 5.5 to 5.1.
Within the state, Faulkner County had the most new cases Friday, 98, followed by Craighead County, which had 90, and Pulaski County, which had 74.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 491,221.
Dillaha said all the deaths reported Friday happened within the past month.
She said 9.4% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive during the seven-day span ending Thursday, up from the 9% initially reported for the week ending Wednesday.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state grew by 71, to 26,089.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by 10, to 2,671.
At 4,702, the increase in vaccine doses that providers reported having administered was the third in a row that was smaller than the one a week earlier.
The number reported Friday, however, included only doses administered through Thursday, a day before providers started administering the Pfizer boosters.
The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 5,387, its lowest level since the week ending July 15.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Friday by 2,084, to 1,671,698, representing about 55.4% of the state's population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 2,873, to 1,361,043, or about 45.1% of the population.
Walensky said Friday that people eligible for a booster shot who haven't received one are still considered to be fully vaccinated.
Among the states and the 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 Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Idaho, Wyoming and West Virginia -- in the percentage of fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 64.1% of people had received at least one dose and 55.1% were fully vaccinated.