Data reported Tuesday by the Arkansas Department of Health continued to indicate a slowdown in the spread of the coronavirus even as the number of virus patients on ventilators rose to a new high for the third day in a row.
The state death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Health Department, rose by 41, to 6,539.
It was just the second time since February when the toll rose by more than 40 in a single day.
Meanwhile, a day after classes started at most public school districts, the Health Department released a report showing that public elementary and secondary schools had 1,347 active cases among students.
Of the state's approximately 260 public school districts and charter school systems, 73 had at least five active cases among students and employees as of Monday.
By contrast, at the start of last school year, the state had just 411 active cases among public school students and employees and 49 districts or charter school systems with at least five active cases.
Arkansas' total count of cases rose Tuesday by 2,203, an increase that was smaller by more than 400 than the one the previous Tuesday.
After setting a record on Monday, the number of covid-19 patients in the state's hospitals fell by 49, to 1,410.
"We're getting closer to 50% of Arkansans vaccinated," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"It's vital that we continue to get vaccinated to provide those layers of protections for our students under 12 who cannot get vaccinated. Let's keep pushing forward to fight this virus."
The number of virus patients who were on ventilators rose by five, to 328.
After setting records for the previous three days, the number who were in intensive care fell by 11, to 542.
The Health Department reported that just 17 ICU beds statewide were unoccupied, however, down from 22 beds a day earlier.
The majority of public school districts started classes this week, although a few started earlier.
The Marion district, which started July 26, was listed as having 74 active cases as of Monday, the most of any school district in the state.
The Bentonville district had the next highest number, 52, followed by the Fort Smith district, which had 49.
All three of those districts have requirements for students and employees to wear masks indoors, policies that were made possible by an Aug. 6 order by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox halting the enforcement of a state law prohibiting schools and other government entities from requiring people to wear masks.
The Marion and Little Rock districts were plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to Fox's ruling, which blocked the enforcement of Act 1002 of 2021 until the case is decided.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has said she will appeal the ruling.
According to a list by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement of school districts that have adopted mask requirements, such requirements were in place in 46 of the districts or charter school systems with five or more active cases.
Of the others, 19 do not have mask requirements. The status of eight districts wasn't listed.
The 21,000-student Little Rock district was listed as having 40 active cases among students and employees.
Springdale, the state's largest district in terms of enrollment, with 21,882 students, had 34 active cases.
Its board adopted a mask policy last week that applies only to students in grades eight through 12.
The other districts and charter school systems with more than 20 active cases -- all of which have mask requirements -- were Cabot with 41, Searcy with 28, Rogers with 27, Pulaski County Special with 26, Fayetteville with 25, Conway with 22, Mountain Home with 22 and Academics Plus Charter schools, headquartered in Maumelle, with 21.
Both Bryant and North Little Rock districts also had 21 active cases each.
The students and employees with active infections as of Monday are among 2,127 students and employees who have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 1.
Colleges and universities were listed as having 349 cases among students and employees since Aug. 1, including 202 that were active as of Monday.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville had the most active cases, 46, followed by the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, which had 22, and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, which had 18.
Private kindergarten-through-12th grade schools had 79 cases among students and employees, including 39 that were active as of Monday.
St. Joseph Catholic School in Conway had 5 active cases and was the only private school campus specifically named. Schools and school districts with fewer than five active cases weren't listed in the report.
LITTLE ROCK REPORT
Also Tuesday, the Little Rock district posted for a period starting at 3 p.m. last Friday through 3 p.m. Tuesday the school-by-school numbers of people with covid and individuals who have to quarantine because of exposure to covid or symptoms of covid.
The district logged 56 cases of covid and 106 individuals who had to quarantine.
Several school districts in Garland County have reported a small number of covid-19 cases, according to the Hot Springs/Garland County Covid Task Force.
Fall sports practice began earlier this month. Most classes started Monday.
As of Monday, the report showed:
• Fountain Lake School District: one student case and one staff case. About 66% of its employees are vaccinated.
• Hot Springs School District: eight student cases and three staff cases. The district has a 73% documented vaccination rate among staff.
• Jessieville School District: four student cases and one staff. Classes start today.
• Lake Hamilton School District: 11 student cases and six staff cases.
The roundup also stated that the Mountain Pine School District football teams are out of quarantine, as of Saturday, and reported one active staff case.
The district does not have a mask mandate, but it encourages the use of masks and getting vaccinations. The district reported that "many students" arrived on the first day of classes Monday wearing masks, according to the task force.
The district has posted weekly covid numbers throughout the summer but has in the past couple of weeks posted more often and will go to daily posts of numbers starting next week.
NEW CASES DOWN
Tuesday's statewide increase in cases was the second one in a row, and the fifth in six days, that was smaller than the one a week earlier.
The average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period fell to 2,139, down from a nearly seven-month high of 2,351 the week ending Aug. 7.
With recoveries outpacing new cases, the number of cases in the state that were considered active fell by 315, to 23,783.
That was down from a seven-month high of 25,735 that the number reached on Sunday.
"Maybe we're on a little bit of a downward trend. We'll see," state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said.
"I think it's possible that people are genuinely feeling themselves at risk, so enough people are taking measures to prevent the spread" of the virus, she said.
On the other hand, she said some people could be using home testing kits and not reporting the results to the Health Department.
With students returning to classes, she said she'll be watching to see if the downward trend in new cases "is going to hold over time."
She said 15.1% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive the week ending Monday, down from 16.5% that was initially reported for the week ending Thursday.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the number below 10%.
Of the deaths reported Tuesday, five happened in late June and the rest occurred within the past month, Dillaha said.
Jeff Tabor, program manager for the state's COVIDComm system, said he's seen an increase in the number of hospitals able to accept transfers of covid-19 patients after the opening of additional beds at Baptist Health hospitals in Little Rock, Fort Smith and Van Buren and the opening of beds for nonveterans at veterans health system hospitals in Little Rock and Fayetteville.
"We have seen an increase in capacity," Tabor, whose system helps match covid-19 patients with hospitals with available beds and other resources, said. "Keeping them full, but it is helping."
He said the system had helped coordinate the transfer of 17 patients in the past week. In many other cases, hospitals that initiated a request for a transfer ended up not transferring the patient or completing a transfer without the system's coordination.
"Our volume specific to us is still not through the roof like we saw in the winter time, but the volume we do have is still so much more difficult to place," Tabor said. "We spend more time on each case."
The Legislature's Joint Budget Committee earlier this month approved spending $37.7 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for 157 beds for covid-19 patients at the Baptist Health hospitals.
Baptist Health spokeswoman Cara Wade said the system had opened 87 of the beds as of Tuesday.
Those comprised 50 regular hospital beds and 12 ICU beds at Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock, 13 ICU beds at Baptist Health-Fort Smith and 12 regular hospital beds at Baptist Health-Van Buren.
"We are working to open the remaining 70 beds in Fort Smith and Van Buren," Wade said.
At its 11 hospitals around the state, she said Baptist Health had 278 covid-19 patients, including 108 who were in intensive care and 80 on ventilators.
She said 88% of the patients were not fully vaccinated.
The Joint Budget Committee has also approved spending $10.4 million for 43 beds at Unity Health-White County Medical Center in Searcy.
Hospital spokeswoman Brooke Pryor said the hospital had hired four nurses to staff the beds and had extended offers to six others.
If the nurses all accept the offers, that would allow the hospital to open the first five of the 43 beds on Aug. 30, she said.
The Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks-Fayetteville had five nonveteran covid-19 patients as of Tuesday, and John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock had three, including one who was on a ventilator.
The veterans health systems serving Northwest and Central Arkansas said last week the hospitals would begin accepting up to five nonveteran patients each in response to a request from the state for assistance that had been approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In addition to the nonveteran patients, the Fayetteville hospital on Tuesday had 10 patients who were veterans with covid-19, and the Little Rock hospital had 45.
Chris Durney, a spokesman for the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, said about 75% of all the Little Rock hospital's covid-19 patients had not been vaccinated.
Arkansas Children's had 23 patients on Wednesday at its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
She said nine of the patients were in intensive care and six were on ventilators. None of the patients had been fully vaccinated, even though more than half were age 12 or older, making them eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
According to rankings on Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas had the country's fourth-highest number of new cases per capita, behind Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, during the week ending Monday.
Arkansas' number of deaths per capita was the country's second-highest after Louisiana.
Within Arkansas, Pulaski County had the most new cases on Tuesday, 223, followed by Benton County, which had 216, and Washington County, which had 206.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with confirmed infections grew by 211, to 20,153.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by 35, to 2,051.
At 12,690, the increase in vaccine doses that providers reported having administered, including second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, was larger by more than 1,200 than the one a week earlier.
The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 11,284.
That was still down from a recent high of 12,950 a day administered the week ending Aug. 9, however.
According to the CDC, 51% of Arkansans had received at least one dose as of Tuesday, and 38.8% had been fully vaccinated.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas ranked 38th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose, up from 40th late last week.
It continued to rank 46th, ahead of Alabama, Mississippi, Wyoming, Idaho and Louisiana, in the percentage of its residents who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 59.9% of people had received at least one dose, and 50.9% were fully vaccinated.