Arkansas' death toll from the coronavirus topped 7,000 on Thursday as the number of covid-19 patients in state hospitals and on ventilators both fell.
The state's count of cases rose by 2,453, the third daily increase in a row that was larger than the one a week earlier.
The death toll, as tracked by the state Department of Health, rose by 34, to 7,003.
"Today we have reached another grave milestone," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"COVID-19 has taken the lives of over 7,000 Arkansans. My heart goes out to every family & friend who has lost a loved one to this virus, and it's a somber reminder that we must all fight this virus together to save lives."
Meanwhile, a Health Department report released Thursday showed that the number of active cases among public elementary and secondary school students -- already at an all-time high -- had risen by 880, to 4,791, since Monday.
A total of 199 of the state's 262 school districts and charter systems had five or more active cases as of Thursday, up from 186 districts and charter school systems on Monday.
After rising Wednesday, the number of people hospitalized in Arkansas with covid-19 fell by 23, to 1,290.
The number on ventilators, which set records Monday and Tuesday, fell Thursday for the second day in a row, dropping from 357 as of Wednesday to 355.
The number of covid-19 patients in intensive care, however, rose by 12, to 534, after falling the previous two days.
The number of ICU beds statewide that were unoccupied fell by nine, to 19.
People with covid-19 made up about 48% of the patients in intensive care as of Thursday, up from 47% a day earlier.
Arkansas' deaths from covid-19 passed the 7,000 mark 45 days after topping 6,000 in July.
The state's first virus deaths were reported on March 24, 2020, less than two weeks after the first patient in the state tested positive.
The death toll rose past 1,000 on Sept. 15, 2,000 on Nov. 3, 3,000 on Dec. 15, 4,000 on Jan. 9, 5,000 on Feb. 4 and 6,000 on July 19.
After reaching a high of 46 per day the week ending Dec. 22, the average number of deaths reported each day over a rolling seven-day period plummeted earlier this year along with the state's daily case increases.
The week ending May 31, an average of just one death per day was reported.
After a surge in cases blamed on the highly transmissible delta variant, the number of deaths reported each day began rising, reaching 32 a day the week ending Aug. 26.
As of Thursday, the average over seven days had fallen slightly, to 28.
Health Department Chief Medical Officer Jennifer Dillaha said all the deaths reported Thursday happened within the past month.
Since the start of classes at most public school districts on Aug. 16, the number of active cases among students and employees has more than tripled.
According to the Health Department report on Thursday, the Cabot School District continued to have the largest number, 173.
That was followed by 150 cases in the Fort Smith School District and 124 in the Springdale School District.
Other districts near the top of the list were Rogers, with 107 active cases; Bentonville, with 104; Jonesboro, with 93; Conway, with 83; and Little Rock, with 74.
The Brookland and Bryant districts both had 69 active cases, and Pulaski County Special had 67.
Private elementary and secondary schools in the state had 100 active cases on Thursday, up from 84 on Monday.
Twenty-two of the cases on Thursday were at St. Joseph Catholic School in Conway.
Among colleges and universities, the number of active cases rose by 200, to 666, from Monday to Thursday.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville had the largest number on both days, with its active case total rising from 135 to 220.
The University of Central Arkansas in Conway had the next highest total on Thursday, 58, followed by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which had 44.
Colleges and school districts with fewer than five cases are not individually named in the Health Department reports, but their case numbers are included in the totals.
The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement reported Thursday that 188 school districts had 50 or more new cases per 10,000 residents within their boundaries over a two-week period, down from a record-tying 201 districts a week earlier.
DEATHS TRENDING YOUNGER
From November to June, the average age of Arkansans who died from covid-19 fell from 78.3 to 66.1 before rebounding slightly in July to 67.2, according to the Health Department.
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people age 65 and over accounted for more than 85% of the covid-19 deaths reported by Arkansas in November and December but just 58% of those reported in July and August.
Of the deaths reported by the Health Department on its online dashboard since July 26, 58% have been among those 65 and older, while 34% were among those age 45-64.
People age 25-44 accounted for 8% of the deaths, which also included four people age 18-24 and one child under age 18.
Dillaha said the drop in the percentage of deaths that are among Arkansans age 65 and older is likely related, in part, to that age group's high vaccination rate compared with younger people.
The Health Department reported Tuesday that people infected since June 6 were three times more likely to be admitted to the hospital and 3.2 times more likely to die from covid-19 if they had not been vaccinated.
Also, Dillaha said the delta variant seems to be causing serious illness in young people more often than earlier coronavirus strains did.
While the number of covid-19 patients who were on ventilators and in intensive care in Arkansas on Thursday remained well above the levels they reached in January, Dillaha said she's hopeful the number of deaths reported each day will stay lower compared with the winter.
"We do have a little bit more, in terms of things we know that work, for treatment," she said.
"We don't have a whole lot, but we know more than we did back then."
For instance, she said people who receive monoclonal antibodies, which are meant to keep people from becoming sick enough to be hospitalized, tend to do better if they do end up in the hospital.
'A STEADY STATE'
The number of covid-19 patients in state hospitals on Thursday was down by 169 from the all-time high it reached on Aug. 16 and smaller by 81 than its January peak.
The number who were on ventilators, while down from a record 388 on Tuesday, was still larger by 87 than its January high.
Similarly, the number of covid-19 patients in intensive care, which reached an all time high of 558 on Aug. 23, remained higher by 76 on Thursday than its peak in January.
The increase in state cases was larger by 135 than the one the previous Thursday.
As a result, the average number of cases added to the tally each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 2,096.
That was still down from a nearly seven-month high of 2,351 the average reached the week ending Aug. 7, however.
With new cases outpacing recoveries, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 263, to 23,077, which was still down from a seven-month high of 25,735 cases that were active as of Aug. 15.
In a "Covid-19 Issue Brief" on Thursday, researchers with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health said the pandemic in Arkansas "appears to be in a steady state, albeit at relatively high levels."
"Of note is the number of new daily cases is beginning to stabilize, and we are no longer seeing substantial increases in the expected number of daily new cases," the researchers wrote.
"On the other hand, we are not seeing a decline in the slope over the next month."
They predicted 2,700 people would be hospitalized with the virus from Monday through Sept. 28, with the number of deaths rising by 1,000.
"Daily hospitalizations show a slow decline, but will remain between 80 and 90 per day," the researchers wrote.
Meanwhile, they said the number of deaths reported each day would rise to 36, which they said "may be a result of deaths lagging behind the substantial increase in cases seen in early August."
According to CDC rankings on Thursday, Arkansas continued to have the country's 11th-highest number of new cases per capita over a rolling seven-day period.
Arkansas' new deaths per capita continued to be the country's second-highest, although Louisiana replaced Mississippi as the state with the highest rate.
Within Arkansas, Pulaski County had the most new cases on Thursday, 229, followed by Benton County, which had 200, and Washington County, which had 183.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 458,234.
Dillaha said 12.8% of coronavirus tests were positive during the seven-day span ending Wednesday, down from the 13.2% that was initially reported for the week ending Tuesday.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the number below 10%.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized with covid-19 in the state rose Thursday by 147, to 24,293.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by 19, to 2,457.
After rising the previous five weeks, the number of people claiming winnings from lottery tickets distributed as rewards for receiving a vaccine dose dropped last week for the second week in a row, Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said.
He said 495 winning tickets were cashed in last week, down from 544 the previous week and 642 the week before that.
Hutchinson announced in late May that Arkansans who receive a shot on May 26 or after would be eligible for one of the $20 scratch-off tickets or a pair of gift certificates for hunting and fishing licenses worth a total of $21.
People can claim the rewards at vaccination clinics organized by the Health Department or the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care or by taking their vaccination cards to one of the department's local health units.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said 18,254 lottery tickets and 7,624 gift certificates had been distributed as of Thursday.
So far, one person, a Texas man who had been visiting relatives in Arkansas, has won $1 million from one of the tickets.
The other winnings, in amounts ranging from $20 to $500, rose last week by $19,860, to $211,400.
One more $1 million ticket remained in circulation in the game, known as the $1 Million Spectacular, along with one $50,000 prize and one $10,000 prize.
At 11,723, the increase on Thursday in the number of vaccine doses that providers reported having administered, including second and third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, was down by 19,821 from the increase a week earlier.
That earlier increase, however, included some "data cleanup" and delayed reporting of doses that were given earlier, Dillaha has said.
The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell Thursday to 10,452, its lowest level since the week ending Aug. 25.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Thursday by 5,138, to 1,615,085, representing about 53.5% of the state's population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 6,991, to 1,267,963, or about 42% of the population.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose.
In the percentage of its residents who were fully vaccinated, it moved from No. 44, to No. 43, ahead of Georgia, North Dakota, Louisiana, West Virginia, Idaho, Wyoming, Alabama and Mississippi.
Nationally, 62% of people had received at least one dose, and 52.7% were fully vaccinated.