In a break with a recent upward trend, Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Thursday by 373, the first daily increase in more than two weeks that was smaller than the one a week earlier.
After falling the previous two days, the number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals rose by five, to 70.
Just two of those patients were on ventilators, down from three a day earlier.
Before this week, the last time the number had been below five was in March 2020, the same month the state's first case was identified.
Arkansas' death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, rose Thursday by seven, to 11,468.
State Epidemiologist Mike Cima said five of the deaths reported Thursday happened within the past month.
Of the others, one occurred in October, and the other was from November.
The increase in cases on Thursday was smaller by 30 than the one the previous Thursday.
It followed a spike of 556 cases on Wednesday, which was the largest one-day rise in more than two months.
Cima said the smaller increase on Thursday was "probably a momentary blip" rather than a sign of a slowdown.
"Just looking back at the dates of result for each one of these cases and the recent trends, we're not seeing that plateauing that we would expect to see" if the state's new case numbers were near or at their peak, he said.
On the other hand, he called it an "incredibly welcome sign" that new cases have leveled off or started to decline in some Northeast states that were among the first to experience new waves of infections this spring.
"We are a bit behind them in terms of the trends and what we experience," Cima said.
He credited treatments, such as Pfizer's Paxlovid pill, as well as the protection afforded by vaccines, for reducing the number of covid-19 patients on ventilators in the state to such a low level.
While many people also have some immunity from a previous infection, Cima cautioned, "Previous infection is not going to protect you for very long against" the omicron variant.
That's especially true, he said, of newer omicron strains such as BA.2.12.1, which has fueled the recent nationwide uptick in cases.
"We're seeing a lot more reinfection among those people who were just even infected in January with the original omicron becoming infected again with a sublineage," Cima said.
Studies have found vaccination generates "a very strong immunologic response" in people who have recovered from an infection, he added.
"My recommendation is that if you've had covid, don't assume that you're naturally immune," he said. "Really hedge your bets and go get the vaccine."
The average daily increase in Arkansas' case count over a rolling seven-day period fell from 320 as of Wednesday to 316, which was still up from an average of 266 a day the previous week.
Already at its highest level since March 4, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 91, to 3,627, as new cases outpaced recoveries.
After falling into the single-digits on Wednesday for the first time since at least May 2020, the number of the state's virus patients who were in intensive care rose Thursday by one, to 10.
Also on Thursday, an increase in hospital admissions caused the "covid-19 community level" in two southeast Arkansas counties to rise from "low" to "medium" under the latest update to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map.
During the week ending Tuesday, the number of covid-19 admissions in Ashley and Chicot counties, which share a service area used by the CDC to calculate hospital metrics, translated to a rate of 13.4 per 100,000 residents.
That was above the cutoff of 10 per 100,000 that causes a county's level to be medium if it had fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week.
In the state's other 73 counties, the covid-19 level remained low.
It was the eighth week in a row that no county in the state had a "high" covid-19 level, which triggers a recommendation that people wear masks in indoor public places.
In counties with a medium level, the CDC recommends people who are immunocompromised or at high risk of severe covid-19 illness talk to their health care providers about whether they should wear masks or take other precautions.
People in those counties also should consider wearing masks around people who have a high risk of severe illness, according to the CDC.
In counties with low covid-19 levels, the CDC doesn't have a recommendation about whether people should wear masks.
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 94, on Thursday, followed by Washington County with 33 and Craighead County with 25.
The state's cumulative count of cases since March 2020 rose to 842,048.
The Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 1,782, which was larger by nine than the daily increase a week earlier.
About 37% of the most recent increase was from doses classified on the department's online coronavirus dashboard as not having an "available dose number."
That's how the department is listing second booster doses, which were authorized in March for people who are 50 or older or have compromised immune systems.
The count of doses for people receiving the vaccine for the first time rose by 441, which was up by 31 from the increase in first doses a week earlier.
The average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 1,365, which was still down from an average of more than 1,400 a day a week earlier.
The average for first doses rose to 314.
According to the CDC, the percentage of Arkansans who had received at least one dose remained Thursday at 67%, and the percentage who were fully vaccinated remained at 54.7%.
The percentage of those fully vaccinated who had received a booster dose remained at 40.1%.
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.
In the percentage who were fully vaccinated, it remained roughly tied with Tennessee for 46th, ahead of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Wyoming.
Nationally, 77.8% of people had received at least one dose, and 66.6% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 46.6% had received a booster dose.