Continuing a renewed surge in identified coronavirus infections for a third day, Arkansas' case count rose Thursday by 1,226, the largest one-day increase in more than two months.
Already at its highest level in more than a month, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose for the seventh day in a row.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by six, to 8,693.
"New and active cases continue to increase across Arkansas," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
Referring to the variant first identified in southern Africa last month, he continued: "Let's prepare for cold weather and Omicron by getting your first dose or booster shot."
The rise in cases Thursday was the largest in a single day since Sept. 24.
It was the third day of sharp increases, with jumps of 1,044 cases Tuesday and 930 Wednesday, following a slowdown around Thanksgiving.
The average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose to 656, topping the level it reached before the dip in new cases last week.
The average as of Thursday was at its highest level since the week ending Oct. 13, when the state's new cases were still on their way down from the summer surge.
"It looks like we have resumed the surge that declined a little bit due to the Thanksgiving holiday," Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said.
The number hospitalized, at its highest level since Oct. 21, rose by nine, to 432.
Rising for the third day in a row, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators grew by four, to 78, its highest level since Nov. 4.
After dipping a day earlier, the number who were in intensive care rose by five, to 176, its highest level since Oct. 26.
The number of intensive-care-unit beds in the state's hospitals that were unoccupied fell by 24, to 68, with covid-19 patients continuing to make up almost 17% of all the people in intensive care.
With new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 694, to 6,585, the largest number since Oct. 16.
Dillaha said omicron, labeled a "variant of concern" by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization, hadn't been detected in Arkansas as of Thursday.
However, the Health Department had been notified of a total of 18 people in Arkansas, up from 15 as of Wednesday, who had recently been to one of eight countries in southern Africa that are subject to a federal travel restriction that took effect this week.
Through a contractor, the department has been contacting people who were in one of those countries within the past two weeks and advising them to get tested and quarantine for at least seven days.
Dillaha said that, to her knowledge, none of the 18 people had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Thursday.
She said Arkansas' surge is being driven primarily by infections among people who are not vaccinated, although an increasing number of cases are among vaccinated people age 65 and older, which she said highlights the need for people in that age group to get booster shots.
"I think people who are not vaccinated should wear a mask when they are around people at higher risk for severe illness, including people who are 65 and older, and I think that everyone should wear a mask when they're in indoor public places," Dillaha said.
She also recommended that people stay home and get tested if they develop symptoms, even if the symptoms are mild.
NORTHERN HOT SPOT
Several of the counties with the largest number of new or active cases were in north-central Arkansas.
For instance, Baxter County, which ranks 17th in population, had the fourth-highest number of new cases -- 69 -- Thursday.
Benton County, the second-largest by population, had the largest number of new cases -- 110 -- followed by Craighead County with 83 and Pulaski County with 76.
Sharp County in north-central Arkansas had 111 cases that were considered active, translating to a rate of 64 per 10,000 residents, the highest in the state.
Madison County in northwestern Arkansas had the next-highest number of active cases per 10,000 residents -- 58.
The next-highest active case totals per 10,000 residents, all in northern Arkansas, were in Independence County with 55, Stone County with 53 and Jackson County with 52.
Among the state's largest counties, the number of active cases per 10,000 residents was 16 in Pulaski County, 20 in Benton County, 18 in Washington County and 21 in Sebastian County.
SCHOOL CASES UP
Among students and employees of the state's public elementary and secondary schools, the number of active cases shot up by 364, to 1,069, from Monday to Thursday, according to Health Department reports.
The number as of Thursday, however, was still down by 168 compared with the total listed on Nov. 24, when schools were closed for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Sixty of the state's 261 school systems had five or more active cases as of Thursday, up from 45 Monday, just after the holiday break.
The Bentonville School District had 62 active cases among students and employees as of Thursday, the highest total in the state.
That was followed by the Springdale School District with 57 active cases, the Rogers School District with 49 and the Cabot School District with 40.
In Pulaski County, systems with relatively high active case numbers included the North Little Rock School District with 31, the Little Rock School District with 24, Academics Plus Charter School System with 22 and the Pulaski County Special School District with 14.
The Pulaski County Special district had earlier this week transitioned 42 second-graders at Clinton Elementary School to remote instruction for three days -- Monday through Wednesday -- because of covid-19 concerns, according to information entered into a state database Thursday.
Colleges and universities had 118 active cases among students and employees as of Thursday, up from 72 cases Monday.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, had the largest number -- 37 -- Thursday, up from 20 Monday.
Arkansas Tech University in Russellville had the next-highest total -- 10 -- as of Thursday, followed by John Brown University in Siloam Springs with eight and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway with six.
Private elementary and secondary schools had 24 active cases as of Thursday, up from eight Monday. No private school was listed Thursday as having five or more active cases.
In a weekly report, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said 19 school districts had 50 or more new cases per 10,000 residents within their boundaries over a recent 14-day span, up from 21 districts a week earlier.
The largest number of new cases per 10,000 residents during the most recent period was in the Salem School District in northern Arkansas, which was the only district with 100 or more new cases per 10,000 residents.
Most of the other 19 districts were also clustered in north-central Arkansas.
"North central AR a hot spot as reported in our school district new infection maps," Joe Thompson, the Center for Health Improvement's chief executive, said in a tweet.
A week earlier, two school districts -- Salem and Cedar Ridge -- also in north-central Arkansas, had 100 or more cases per 10,000 residents.
The cases used to calculate the rates for each district include those among residents living within the district, excluding incarcerated people, and residents of nursing homes and human development centers.
CASES TOP 530,000
The state's cumulative count of cases rose Thursday to 530,994.
Dillaha said two of the deaths reported Thursday happened within the past month.
Of the others, two were in August and one each happened in September and October.
She said 8.7% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive over the seven-day span ending Wednesday, up from the 8.3% that were initially reported for the week ending Tuesday.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 46, to 28,493.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on ventilator with covid-19 rose by three, to 2,999.
Meanwhile, at 11,207, the increase in the Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered was larger by almost 1,900 than the one the previous Thursday.
Booster shots made up just over half of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 3,291, which was up slightly from the increase in first doses a week earlier.
After dipping Wednesday, the average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose Thursday to 7,170, which remained well below the average of almost 10,000 a day a week earlier.
The average for first doses rose to 2,296. That was still down from almost 3,500 a day a week earlier.
According to the CDC, 60.7% of Arkansans had received at least one vaccine dose as of Thursday, up from 60.6% a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated rose from 49.4% as of Wednesday to 49.5%.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 21.8% had received booster doses as of Thursday, up from 21.4% a day earlier.
Among children ages 5-11, who became eligible for a low-dose version of the Pfizer vaccine last month, the number who had received at least one dose rose by 597, to 27,760, representing about 10.2% of the children in that age group.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas fell from 36th to 37th in the percentage of its residents of all ages who had received at least one dose.
In the percentage of its residents who were fully vaccinated, Arkansas continued to rank 44th, ahead of Louisiana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho.