The number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas hit an all-time high Thursday for the third day in a row, while the state's count of cases grew by more than 11,000.
The state's death toll from the pandemic, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by eight, to 9,470.
After a record increase of 113 Wednesday, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew Thursday by 40, to 1,640.
Before this week, the record for the total number of hospitalized covid-19 patients was 1,459 on Aug. 16, during the summer surge powered by the delta variant.
At 11,160, however, the increase in cases was smaller than both the record jump of 14,494 a day earlier and the 12,990 cases added the previous Thursday, which was the record for a one-day increase before Wednesday.
After rising a day earlier, the average daily increase over a rolling seven-day period fell Thursday to 8,551, which was down from a record 9,122 the week ending Sunday.
Still, with new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 2,251, to 97,629, surpassing the previous record of 96,379 cases that were active as of Sunday.
"I was glad to see that the total number of [new] cases was lower than it was this time last week, but I'm still very concerned about the hospitalizations continuing to increase," said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer.
In a tweet, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the "rolling average" of the percentage of coronavirus tests in the state that were positive had declined.
Dillaha said the percentage over the seven-day span ending Wednesday was 33.9%, the same percentage that was initially reported for the week ending Tuesday.
The percentage for the week ending Tuesday, however, later rose to a record 34.7% as more test results were reported.
"It's not like earlier in the spike, but we can't say that we've turned the corner either," Dillaha said.
Hutchinson also noted the decline in new cases compared with a day earlier.
"We're continuing to monitor hospitalizations across the state," he said, adding that he would discuss that today at his weekly news conference at the state Capitol.
After jumping by 21 a day earlier, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators fell by five, to 187.
The number who were in intensive care fell by two, to 403.
During the current surge in cases driven by the omicron variant, both numbers have yet to reach the levels they did during previous waves in the summer of last year and last winter.
The number on ventilators peaked at 388 during the summer surge last year and at 268 last winter.
The number who were in intensive care peaked at 558 during the summer and 458 in January 2021.
At hospitals around the state, the number of intensive care unit beds that were unoccupied rose Thursday by 15, to 47, with covid-19 patients continuing to make up about 35% of all the people in intensive care.
At Baptist Health's 11 hospitals in Arkansas, the number of covid-19 patients rose Thursday to 333, setting a record for the third day in a row, spokeswoman Cara Wade said in an email.
The patients Thursday included 88 who were in intensive care and 52 who were on ventilators.
"At last check yesterday, 27% of our patients hospitalized for covid-19 had received two doses of vaccine and 8% had received booster doses," Wade said.
This week, the health system opened 63 beds at its hospitals in Conway and Van Buren with the help of American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated by the state last week.
As of Thursday, 25 covid-19 patients had been admitted to the newly opened spaces.
"Though hospital beds and staffing are extremely limited, we have fortunately been able to keep surgeries going as scheduled for all of our patients," Wade said.
"Limiting non-urgent services remains an option to create hospital capacity in the future if needed."
Out of its 11,000 employees, the health system had 259 who were off work Thursday for reasons related to covid-19, down from 323 Wednesday and 584 earlier in the week, Wade said.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center had 92 covid-19 patients Thursday, down from a record 94 a day earlier, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
Several other patients with covid-19 Thursday were in the emergency room, waiting for hospital beds to become available, she said.
"We have a wonderful housekeeping and environmental services team, and they have really worked quickly when somebody's discharged to turn the room, get it cleaned, get it ready for another patient," Taylor said.
"Without them we couldn't do this."
The covid-19 patients who had been admitted as of Thursday included 15 who were in intensive care and seven who were on ventilators.
Forty of the 92 patients had been vaccinated, Taylor said.
She said UAMS, which also has about 11,000 employees, had 649 employees who were off work for reasons related to covid-19, up from 635 a day earlier.
The number Thursday included 353 health care workers.
Of the total number, 307, including 196 of the health care workers, had tested positive for covid-19.
"We've been able to move patients around and have enough negative pressure rooms available, so it's just the same thing we've been doing, but the staffing and the capacity looks pretty good today," Taylor said.
At St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, the number of covid-19 patients set a record for the third day in a row as it rose from 115 Wednesday to 118, spokesman Mitchell Nail said.
He said the hospital Wednesday had three patients who died of covid-19 and a record 23 admissions of patients with the virus.
The covid-19 patients at the hospital Thursday included 22 who were in intensive care and five who were on ventilators.
About 60% of the 118 patients had not been vaccinated, he said.
He said the percentage of St. Bernards Healthcare employees who were out for reasons related to covid-19 had dropped from about 6% to 5%.
To help fill gaps, people at the hospital have been working outside their normal duties, he said.
"We're seeing many of our leaders, those who do have clinical backgrounds, they came in to work in scrubs today because they expected to do patient care," he said.
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's Hospital had 40 covid-19 patients, down from a record 46 a day earlier, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
The patients Thursday included three who were on ventilators.
More than half of the 40 patients were at least 5 years old, making them eligible for vaccination, but only seven had been fully vaccinated, she said.
Also Thursday, the state distributed the last of 1.5 million home covid-19 tests that it purchased late last month.
Since early last week, the tests have been given out for free to the public at local health units, public libraries and other locations around the state.
The Central Arkansas Library System, which handed out more than 11,000 of the tests at its branches in Pulaski and Perry counties, received its final shipment Wednesday and started giving them away at 4 p.m. that day, Executive Director Nate Coulter said.
A few branches still had a few tests left Thursday afternoon.
That was a change from last week, when supplies ran out at at least one library within 30 minutes.
"It sounds like maybe the demand has tapered off," Coulter said.
At UAMS' drive-thru testing clinic in Little Rock, about 577 people were tested Wednesday, compared with an average of about 800 on other recent days, Taylor said.
"We suspect it has something to do with the availability of other testing centers now" as well as the distribution of home tests, Taylor said.
She said 41.5% of the tests Wednesday were positive.
Dillaha said she wasn't aware of any plans by the Health Department to purchase additional home tests, noting that free home test deliveries became available this week from the federal government through covidtests.gov and that health insurers are required to reimburse people for tests purchased at stores.
People can also get tested at the Health Department's local health units around the state, she added.
"Testing is fairly widely available," she said.
Arkansas joined 27 other states in sending a letter asking the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to withdraw its vaccination mandate for large employers.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that while the federal government can mandate that certain health care workers be vaccinated, it cannot do the same for workers of large companies.
According to a news release from the office of Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, OSHA hasn't withdrawn the emergency rule.
"The Supreme Court made it clear the vaccine mandate is illegal federal overreach" Rutledge said in the news release. "We must protect the freedoms of Arkansas workers from these unlawful actions."
According to Rutledge's release, the letter by the coalition of 27 attorneys general states, "The Occupational Safety and Health Act was designed to address dangers employees face at work because of their work -- not dangers that are no more prevalent at work than in society generally. The United States Supreme Court agrees and held that the [rule] -- or any similar permanent standard for that matter -- fails to address a unique workplace hazard and is therefore unlawful."
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 1,144, Thursday, followed by Washington County with 1,105 and Benton County with 946.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 713,643.
Dillaha said all of the deaths reported Thursday happened within the past month.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew Thursday by 377, to 31,624.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on ventilators rose by 23, to 3,273.
A decline in reported vaccinations compared with last week continued Thursday after the holiday weekend and snow that fell this week in parts of the state.
The Health Department's tally of doses that had been administered rose by 5,852, which was down by almost 3,300 compared with the increase the previous Thursday.
Booster shots made up 44% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 1,641, which was smaller by almost 1,300 than the increase in first doses a week earlier.
The average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 5,911, the first time it had been below 6,000 since the week ending Oct. 23.
The average for first doses dropped to 1,870, the lowest average since the week ending Oct. 27.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 64.6% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Thursday, up from 64.5% a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated remained at 52.3%.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 34.9% had received a booster dose as of Thursday, up from 34.7% a day earlier.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its population who had received at least one dose and 46th, ahead of only Louisiana, Mississippi, Wyoming, Alabama and Idaho, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 75.3% of people had received at least one dose, and 63.2% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 39.3% had received booster doses.