The number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas' hospitals fell for the second day in a row on Thursday as the state's new-case numbers continued to decline after an uptick linked to the start of the 2022-23 school year.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 18, to 12,046.
State Epidemiologist Mike Cima said just four of the deaths reported Thursday happened within the past month.
Of the others, he said, two occurred in January, one was from March, two were from May, one was from July and eight were from early August.
The number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals, which fell by seven on Wednesday, dropped Thursday by three more, to 286.
The number as of Thursday remained higher by nine than its level a week earlier, however, and by 28 than the two-month low it reached early last week.
The state's count of cases rose Thursday by 775.
While larger by 19 than the increase on Wednesday, it was down by 70 compared with the rise the previous Thursday.
"Overall, I think the message is still cases and transmission continue to recede," Cima said.
"I think we'll start to see hospitalizations come down quicker, and I hope that deaths will start diminishing here soon."
Including the deaths reported Thursday, a total of 69 deaths had been reported in the past week, the highest over a seven-day span since early April.
However, when deaths are examined by the day the death occurred, rather than when it was reported, it appears deaths stemming from the state's latest wave of infections peaked in late July or early August at an average over a rolling seven-day period of about seven a day, Cima said.
By comparison, he said, the daily average for deaths peaked in the 40s or 50s this past winter and the previous winter, and in the 30s or 40s during a surge last year powered by the delta variant.
"The number of deaths occurring each day compared to previous peaks is way, way, way lower," Cima said.
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 145, on Thursday, followed by Washington County with 54 and Jefferson County with 50.
The state's cumulative count of cases since March 2020 rose to 948,742.
Dropping for the ninth day in a row, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period fell Thursday to 565, its lowest level since the week ending June 7.
With recoveries outpacing new cases, the number of cases in the state that were considered active fell by 274, to 7,348, the smallest number since June 14.
After rising by one a day earlier, the number of the state's virus patients who were in intensive care remained Thursday at 48.
The number on ventilators, which rose the previous four days, fell by three, to 19.
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's had eight covid-19 patients on Thursday, up from seven on Wednesday but down from 13 the previous Thursday, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
Largely due to declines in new cases, the number of Arkansas counties where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear masks in indoor public places fell from 22 to eight on Thursday as a result of a weekly update to the agency's map of "covid-19 community levels."
The levels -- low, medium or high -- are based on weekly numbers of new cases, hospital admissions for covid-19 and the percentage of staffed hospital beds that are occupied by covid-19 patients.
Under the latest map update, the level fell from high, meaning masks are recommended, to medium in 14 Arkansas counties: Bradley, Clay, Cleveland, Desha, Drew, Faulkner, Greene, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lonoke, Perry, Poinsett, Randolph and Scott.
In Ashley County, the level fell from high to low.
Meanwhile, an increase in new cases in Hot Spring County caused its level to rise from medium to high.
Overall, the number of counties with a low covid-19 level rose by three, to 31. The number with a medium level grew by 11, to 36.
Among the state's most populous counties aside from Faulkner, the covid-19 level remained medium in Pulaski, Sebastian and Saline counties, low in Benton and Washington counties and high in Craighead County.
In counties with a medium covid-19 level, the CDC recommends that people who are immunocompromised or at high risk of severe covid-19 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 a low covid-19 level, the CDC doesn't have a recommendation about whether people should wear masks.