The number of Arkansans hospitalized with covid-19 dropped below 400 Saturday for the first time since Nov. 29, 2021, shortly before the surge of the omicron variant, according to data from the Arkansas Department of Health.
After a slight increase Friday, the number of hospitalizations fell by 41 to 371. Covid-19 patients in intensive care also decreased Saturday after increasing Friday. The new total of 121 intensive care patients is the lowest level since Nov. 18, according to Health Department data.
There were eight fewer patients on ventilators Saturday, totaling 60, after Friday saw no change.
The overall prevalence of covid-19 in Arkansas has been declining since late January. Active, or currently infectious, cases dropped by 192 on Saturday, totaling 3,489. Friday marked the first time since June 2021 that active cases were below 4,000.
However, the state recorded 698 new covid-19 cases Saturday, 213 more new cases than on Friday. Arkansas has seen 822,900 covid-19 cases in almost two years, according to health department data.
With 18 deaths recorded Saturday, the state has now seen 10,699 Arkansans die from covid-19.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that residents of only 16 Arkansas counties, representing about 21% of the state's population, wear masks to reduce covid-19 transmission.
A week ago, the CDC recommended masks in 42 of Arkansas' 75 counties, labeling them "high" or "substantial" levels of transmission, but the agency has since downgraded 26 counties to "low" or "medium."
Mitigating the risk of covid-19 "really did require state and national public health emergency declarations" two years ago when the pandemic began, said Arkansas Center for Health Improvement CEO Joe Thompson, but the responsibility now falls on communities, families and individuals.
"Covid-19 is still with us, but we have more tools now, more knowledge now, more people that are protected now, so we don't need as stringent of public health measures" such as mask mandates, Thompson said in a Friday interview.
Health Department data shows 55.2% of Arkansans 5 and older -- more than 1.5 million -- are fully vaccinated against covid-19, and 34.8% of vaccinated Arkansans have received booster shots.
The Health Department recorded 2,042 vaccines distributed Saturday, 202 more than Friday but 45 fewer than a week earlier.
"Vaccination status should be the greatest influencer of threat assessment," Thompson said. "You need to be fully vaccinated and boosted to assume your threat level is low."
He compared vigilance about the coronavirus to hurricane season, calling the omicron variant the most recent "hurricane of covid" and the current state of the virus in Arkansas a "tropical storm level" of danger.
"Our offensive strategies are to get people vaccinated and boosted so when another variant comes along, we don't have to worry about it," Thompson said.