The number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas fell Wednesday for the ninth-straight day, dropping below 800 for the first time in more than two months.
The state's count of cases rose by 1,153, the second 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 19, to 7,670.
"I was pleased that the numbers continued to head in a direction with fewer cases and fewer hospitalizations," Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said.
But she said she was troubled by a slowdown in recent weeks in people receiving their first vaccine doses.
"I am concerned that we will not be able to maintain the low spread during the wintertime without a higher number of people in the population who've been immunized," Dillaha said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed a similar concern.
"The majority of the vaccine doses administered yesterday were booster doses," Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"I am encouraged to see so many Arkansans get their third dose, but we need more first doses administered. The vaccine is the best protection from severe illness and hospitalizations from COVID."
Meanwhile, an official at Mercy health system, which has hospitals in Rogers, Fort Smith and Berryville, said it was preparing to cover shifts of employees who will be suspended starting on Friday for failing to comply with the vaccination requirement it announced in July.
Mercy spokeswoman Mardi Taylor said employees who haven't been vaccinated will be placed on unpaid suspension for 28 days, then terminated if they still haven't complied.
"Mercy likely won't know the full impact of any staffing shortages for another 28 days following the vaccine deadline," Taylor said.
"Anyone who isn't compliant with the policy by the deadline will be placed on a 28-day unpaid suspension, so numbers won't be known for another month."
The health system has 40,000 employees in four states, including 5,700 in Arkansas. At the time the requirement was announced, Taylor said 75% of the employees had been vaccinated.
Arkansas Children's last month announced a vaccination requirement for its employees that takes effect today.
Employees at Washington Regional Medical System have a Friday deadline to provide proof of vaccination.
A vaccination requirement for employees at Conway Regional Health System takes effect a week later, on Oct. 8.
Officials at St. Bernards Healthcare announced last month that members of its leadership team must be fully vaccinated by Friday, and all other employees must have their shots by Nov. 1.
Requirements also take effect Nov. 1 for employees of CHI St. Vincent and NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro.
"Since announcing the requirement that all CHI St. Vincent employees be fully vaccinated against covid-19, our ministry has seen a positive response from our staff," CHI St. Vincent spokeswoman Bonnie Ward said in an emailed statement.
"The goal of the requirement has never been to penalize staff, but rather to help ensure their safety and ability to fulfill their calling to provide compassionate care in our communities.
"At this time, our managers are working with staff who may not wish to receive the vaccine or have applied for a religious or heath-based exemption so we can identify a way to move forward together while ensuring we can continue to meet the critical healthcare needs of our community," Ward said.
FIRST DOSES DOWN
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 1,715 Arkansans per day received their first vaccine doses the week ending Wednesday -- the lowest average over a seven-day span since at least February.
The number includes people receiving their first doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines as well as those who received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The average peaked at more than 15,400 people a day the week ending April 3, then gradually fell to as low as 2,062 a day in June.
During a resurgence in cases, blamed on the highly transmissible delta variant, and ahead of the start of a new school year, vaccinations began picking up again in July and early August.
An average of more than 8,700 Arkansans a day received their first shots the week ending Aug. 7.
Since then, however, the number of people starting the vaccination process each day has gradually declined along with the state's new cases and hospitalizations.
"With the decrease in spread of covid-19, people may perceive themselves to be at lower risk for getting infected," Dillaha said.
Also, she said, "there seems to be an increasing perception by people that having had covid-19 provides one with sufficient immunity from getting it again."
While getting infected does provide some protection from a subsequent infection, "it's not yet clear for how long and how complete the protection is," she said.
It is known, however, that among people who have recovered from an infection, those who don't get vaccinated are about twice as likely to be reinfected as those who do, she said.
Of the 9,616 newly administered doses that were reported to the Health Department on Tuesday, 1,993 were first doses, 2,675 were second doses and 4,928 were third doses, including booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
Information on the dose number was missing for the remaining 20 doses.
Dillaha said it was the first time the number of third doses reported in a day had outnumbered first and second doses.
The CDC late last week recommended the Pfizer boosters for people who received their second doses at least six months ago and are 65 or older, residents of long-term care facilities or people ages 50-64 with medical conditions putting them at an elevated risk of severe covid-19 illness.
Younger adults with such health conditions and people at increased risk of catching the virus because of their jobs or because they live in institutional settings can also get boosters "based on their individual benefits and risks," according to the agency.
Third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were also authorized last month for certain people with compromised immune systems.
The number of Arkansans who had received a third dose rose Wednesday to 32,655.
Officials at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and University of Central Arkansas in Conway said Wednesday that students and workers can schedule booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine at their campus health clinics.
UCA President Houston Davis, in a message to campus Wednesday said that UCA's Student Health Clinic "has determined that higher education employees and students may receive a booster shot due to our occupational/institutional setting."
Mark Rushing, a UA spokesman, in an email Wednesday said the state Department of Health "confirmed that people who work at institutions of higher education are eligible for a booster dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine," provided it's been at least six months since their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, a two-shot vaccination.
He said the booster shots are available by appointment only at UA's Pat Walker Health Center.
Active cases at UA remained near a low for the fall semester but ticked upward over a two-day period that ended Tuesday, according to the university's website.
Cases increased to 39 from 37 two days previously.
The most recent total included 32 among students, six among staff and one faculty member.
In the 24 hours ending at 3 p.m. Wednesday, the Little Rock School District reported that five students had tested positive for the virus, and 29 others had been required to quarantine after being near an infected person.
Three of the students who tested positive and 27 required to quarantine were at Don Roberts Elementary School.
Of the other students who tested positive, one was at Central High School and one was at Washington Elementary School.
The other students in quarantine included one at Central and one at Mabelvale Elementary School.
The number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 fell Wednesday by 51, to 758, its lowest level since July 18.
After falling by nine on Tuesday, the number of virus patients on ventilators fell Wednesday by six, to 219, its lowest level since July 30.
The number in intensive care fell for the third-straight day, going from 363 on Tuesday to 343, its lowest level since July 24.
The number of intensive care unit beds that were unoccupied rose by seven, to 85.
People with covid-19 made up 31% of the state's intensive care patients on Wednesday, down from about 33% a day earlier.
Wednesday's increase in cases was the first one in four days that topped 1,000 but was still smaller by 310 than the one the previous Wednesday.
The average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period fell to 965, the first time it had been below 1,000 since the week ending July 15.
Already at its lowest level since July 19, the total number of cases in the state that were considered active fell by 238, to 10,620, as recoveries and deaths outpaced new cases.
It was the 18th day in a row the number had fallen.
CDC rankings on Wednesday showed Arkansas continuing to move toward the bottom of states in its number of new cases per capita over a rolling seven-day period.
During the seven-day span ending Tuesday, Arkansas' rate was the country's 30th-highest, down from the 26th-highest the week ending Monday.
In new deaths, however, Arkansas went from having the 14th-highest rate to tying with Nevada for the 11th-highest as its number per 100,000 residents rose slightly, from 4.9 to 5.
Alaska, with 10.5 deaths per 100,000 residents the week ending Tuesday, continued to have the highest rate.
Within Arkansas, Washington County had the most new cases Wednesday, 108, followed by Pulaski County, which had 101, and Benton County, which had 96.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 495,073.
Dillaha said all the deaths reported Wednesday happened within the past month.
She said 9.5% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive during the seven-day span ending Tuesday, down from the 9.7% that was initially reported for the week ending Monday and a high during the summer of 16.3% the week ending Aug. 4. Hutchinson, the Republican governor, 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 by 71, to 26,395.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by 14, to 2,722.
Despite the decline in first doses, the increase on Wednesday in vaccine doses that providers reported having administered was the second one in a row that was bigger than the one a week earlier.
The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 6,054, its highest level since the week ending Sept. 21.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Wednesday by 2,222, to 1,679,502, representing about 55.7% of the state's population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 3,275, to 1,373,152, or about 45.5% of the population.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its population who had received at least one vaccine dose and 42nd -- ahead of Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho and West Virginia -- in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 64.5% of people had received at least one dose, and 55.9% were fully vaccinated.
Information for this article was contributed by Jaime Adame and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.