Covid-19 vaccines updated to target the most common strains of the omicron variant continued to arrive in Arkansas on Friday, a day after they received final clearance from federal regulators for use as boosters, and some health care providers began administering the shots.
Meanwhile, despite an uptick in the state's new case numbers, the number of people hospitalized in the state with the virus fell Friday to its lowest level in almost two months.
The state's covid-19 death toll, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by six, to 11,929.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said all the deaths reported Friday happened more than a month ago.
One occurred in January, one was from June, three were from July, and one was from early August, she said.
In a Facebook video, KTHV anchor Craig O'Neill quipped that he was the first person in Arkansas -- or at least in The Heights neighborhood in Little Rock -- to get one of the updated boosters after they were endorsed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday evening.
He said in a phone interview he had asked Kavanaugh Pharmacy co-owner Scott Pace to let him know when the store's first booster shipment came in, and Pace obliged.
O'Neill, whose real name is Randy Hankins, said he and his wife, Jane Hankins, got their shots at the store at 10 a.m., just over an hour after the doses arrived.
"Jane and I have stayed covid-free, and we've given a lot of credit to the vaccines," O'Neill, who is 71, said.
"Every time they've trotted 'em out we've made sure we got 'em."
The updated Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which target the original version of the coronavirus as well as two strains of the omicron variant now responsible for most infections, were authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday as boosters for fully vaccinated people whose last vaccine dose was at least two months ago.
The Pfizer vaccine was authorized for people 12 and older, and Moderna's was cleared for those 18 and older.
The recommendation by the CDC late Thursday cleared the way for providers to begin administering the shots.
John Vinson, chief executive of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said it appeared that the first "wave" of updated vaccine doses ordered through a federal program by pharmacies belonging to the Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network had all arrived by Friday, including some doses that arrived Thursday.
Walgreens and Walmart stores also received doses through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination and were administering them on Friday, he said.
Among community pharmacies that had received doses, some started giving the shots on Friday, Vinson said. Others were waiting until next week while they trained staff and updated their paperwork.
"Some have had a lot of demand. Others haven't really had any demand or questions about it yet, and they're not advertising it yet," Vinson said. "It's all over the page."
Kavanaugh Pharmacy received its first shipment of the updated Moderna vaccine at 8:45 a.m. Friday, Pace, the co-owner said.
All the available appointment slots for the booster on Friday ended up getting filled, and most of the slots for Saturday had been filled by Friday afternoon, he said.
Appointments aren't necessary, however. The shots are also available to walk-in customers.
"There seems to be a lot of demand so far," Pace said. "That's encouraging to see."
The Health Department's local health units around the state will start administering the updated boosters next week, McNeill said.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the department's director, said some of the doses the health units receive will be redistributed to other local health units as well as to pharmacies and other health care providers.
The department was waiting for more detailed guidance on issues that could come up, such as whether a recent covid-19 infection would affect when someone should receive a booster, she said.
"We're just wanting to make sure that our policies and paperwork reflect the guidance from the CDC," Dillaha said.
She said it's "very possible" that the boosters will help lessen the impact of the virus on the state.
"My hope with this booster dose, since it's a much better match for what's predominant, is that in general the people who get the primary series plus this booster dose will have the optimal protective immunity that can be gotten at this point," Dillaha said.
Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers, which received a shipment of the updated Pfizer vaccine on Thursday, plans to start administering the boosters at its primary care clinics next week, David Fortner, the hospital's pharmacy director and vice president for operations, said in an emailed statement.
"We expect demand for the booster to be similar to what we've seen with previous COVID vaccine recommendation updates," Fortner said.
Declining for the second day in a row, the number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas' hospitals fell Friday by four, to 291, dropping below the previous recent low of 294 that it reached on Aug. 20.
It was the smallest number of hospitalized since July 6.
The state's count of cases rose by 1,219.
While smaller by more than 100 than the increase on Thursday, it was larger by 38 than the one the previous Friday.
Already at its highest level since the week ending Aug. 5, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose to 990.
With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of cases in the state that were considered active grew by 215, to 12,088, the first time it had been above 12,000 since Aug. 13.
State officials have linked the gradual upward trend in the state's new case numbers to a rise in infections among children after the start of the 2022-23 school year.
Health Department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said Thursday that new cases "appear to be plateauing" among children under age 12 but were still increasing among children and teenagers age 12-18.
Dillaha said Friday that the decline in the number hospitalized likely reflects a slowdown in new infections among adults, who make up the bulk of hospitalized covid-19 patients.
"The cases among older adults and in general the adult population are all going down, in terms of what's been reported, so I'm assuming that reflects a general downward trend in the true number of cases out there," Dillaha said.
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 130, on Friday, followed by Washington County with 103 and Craighead County with 66.
The state's cumulative count of cases since March 2020 rose to 935,181.
After rising by two a day earlier, the number of covid-19 patients who were in intensive care fell by six, to 41, the smallest number since June 28.
The number on ventilators, which rose by three on Thursday, fell Friday by five, to nine, the first time it had been in the single digits since July 11.