As active covid-19 cases continue to break daily records, some counties are being hit hard -- mostly in the Arkansas Delta -- despite the fact that vaccination rates are higher there than in counties with lower rates of infection.
Health officials say the numbers don't tell the full story, however.
None of the counties in the state, no matter how low or high the rate of infection is, have a high enough vaccination rate to affect the spread of covid-19, Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said.
"In addition, the omicron variant is able to partially escape the protection provided by vaccination, so being fully vaccinated does not provide sufficient protection to prevent infection on most people," Dillaha said.
On Friday, the state's active cases reached a record high of 101,141. With an estimated 2021 population of 3,025,891, that means that 1 in 30 Arkansans have the virus.
About 54% of the state's population 5 years old and up is fully vaccinated, according to the Health Department. That group includes the 18% of the eligible population who also have received the third shot, a booster.
As of Friday, Arkansas County had the highest rate of infection in the state, with 1 in 17 people there catching the virus. About 58% of its eligible population is fully vaccinated, and that group includes the 21% of the eligible population who also received the booster shot.
On the other hand, Montgomery County had the lowest rate of infection in the state, with 1 in 89 people there having the virus. Only about 37% of its eligible residents are fully vaccinated, and that includes the 11% of the eligible population who also received the booster shot.
That means Arkansas County has a much larger portion of its residents than Montgomery County does who have received at least two shots, but also has more than five times the rate of active covid-19 cases.
The trend stayed steady in a comparison of the 10 highest and 10 lowest rates of infections by county.
In fact, the 10 counties with the highest rates of infection -- Arkansas, Monroe, Faulkner, Cleveland, Bradley, Conway, Desha, Greene, Cross and Cleburne counties -- have a full vaccination rate ranging from 44% to 59% of the eligible population and those who have also received booster rates range from 15% to 21% of the eligible population, according to the state.
But the 10 counties with the lowest rates of infection -- Montgomery, Scott, Marion, Stone, Polk, Calhoun, Randolph, Baxter, Lafayette and Fulton counties -- have a full vaccination rate ranging from 33% to 48% and booster rates ranging from 8% to 18%.
The difference is not found in testing rates when comparing the counties with the highest and lowest infection rates. Those with the highest rate of active cases per population have lower testing rates than those with the lowest rate of active cases.
"People need to have a booster dose to prevent the majority of infections. Therefore, this data does not surprise us," Dillaha said. "A much higher proportion of people in Arkansas counties who are up to date [fully vaccinated and boosted] on the recommended covid-19 vaccinations are going to have to be much higher than they currently are to lessen the spread of covid-19."
Eddie Best, county judge of Arkansas County, said he is surprised by the number of active cases there -- 969 in a population of about 17,000 as of Friday.
"A good percent of the people here are wearing masks when they go out. We require masks to come in the courthouse and we're taking all the preventative measures," Best said. "Why it has spread so much, I don't know."
Best said he and other county and city leaders are diligent in battling the virus spread there. The schools have mask mandates that are triggered when cases get too high and Best said he works closely with the Health Department for mitigation. The Arkansas County Office of Emergency Management also assists the local Health Department unit in distributing at-home covid tests to the county residents and works closely with the department on other efforts.
"With school out this week, there hasn't been hardly any activity," Best said. "People are taking precautions and staying home as much as they can. There are a few people that are nonchalant, but people are taking it seriously for the most part."
Nikki Hawkins, director of communications and student services at the Stuttgart School District, said the district keeps a close eye on the data. The district recently switched to virtual learning because of the high number of cases, especially among the district staff.
"It's hard to have school without teachers," Hawkins said. "It doesn't make sense at all to double up classes and substitute teachers are hard to get."
Debbie Stone, a registered nurse with the Stuttgart School District, is in charge of monitoring the virus and submitting reports for the district.
"Oh my gosh. I never thought two years later that we would still be dealing with this," Stone said. "We are keeping up with the numbers and doing whatever we can do. You have to take it one day at a time. We're ready for it to get back to normal."
WAVES OF INFECTION
Mark Williams, the dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said the contradiction of high active cases in areas with higher vaccination rates is an "artifact of statistics" and not the full story.
"You're just seeing the infection move through different counties at different times. In reality, I don't think right now, because of the high number of people that are unvaccinated in every county, that the two are necessarily related," Williams said. "The reason for that has to do primarily with the level of virus in the community. When there's an extremely high level of virus in a community, you're going to get more infections. And as a result, you're going to get high numbers, or high rates of infection."
The number of active cases is not indicative of the rate of vaccination, he said. While some cases are re-infections, other cases are breakthrough infections in the fully vaccinated.
And with the highly contagious omicron virus, even those who are boosted can have a breakthrough case, Williams said.
The numbers are a snapshot in time and do not show the whole picture, Williams said.
"You may be seeing more of the pattern of how the virus is moving through the state as opposed to the efficacy of the vaccine to prevent infection," he said. "The other thing to remember is over 80% of people who are hospitalized are not vaccinated. In some respect, hospitalization is the real key indicator of the efficacy of the vaccine. It's not really the infection rates."
The covid-19 vaccines are not meant to prevent infections, but to prevent serious illness, Williams said.
On Friday, hospitalizations reached a high of 1,658. According to Health Department data, the metro area of the state had the highest number of hospitalized covid patients at 541.
The northeast and southeast sections of the state -- where the majority of the top 10 counties with the highest rates of infection are located -- were the second highest with a combined 330 hospitalized covid patients including 54 in intensive care units and 18 requiring ventilators.
The southwest region had 242 covid-19 hospitalizations followed by the Arkansas Valley with 222, the northwest region with 188 and the north central region with 135.
'VACCINE, VACCINE, VACCINE'
"It seems like the people are getting the wrong impression that this is a mild disease. If we look at it in terms of population, yes, it can be milder or thought of as milder," Williams said. "But from a personal or individual level, this is a serious disease. It can put you in the hospital. It can make you incredibly ill and it's also likely going to cause long covid. And trust me, nobody wants long covid."
The answer comes down to "what we've been preaching all along," Williams said.
"Avoid crowds if you at all possibly can and avoid gatherings with people at all. That's because the more people you are with, the higher the likelihood that you are going to encounter somebody that is infected. And with this virus, it means that it's going to spread within that group," he said. "The other is if you are out and about, to wear a mask."
But the most powerful defense against the covid-19 virus is still: "vaccine, vaccine, vaccine," Williams said.
"It's the best thing we've got."