Despite fears that gatherings over Labor Day weekend would result in a surge in coronavirus cases, Arkansas' new case numbers and hospitalizations appeared to be continuing on a downward trend Wednesday, with the number of hospitalized patients dropping for the eighth day in a row.
The count of cases rose by 1,919, an increase that was smaller by 262 than the one the previous Wednesday.
The number of covid-19 patients in hospitals fell Wednesday by seven, to 1,090.
After falling for the previous few days, however, the number of coronavirus patients who were on ventilators and in intensive care both grew.
The death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, rose by 28, to 7,362.
"Our COVID report today shows the continued gradual decline in new and active cases," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"Our vaccine numbers are continuing to rise, although we need to increase the number of Arkansans getting vaccinated. We're making progress, but we still have work to do."
After rising a day earlier, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period fell Wednesday by 37, to 1,659.
That was down from 1,990 cases a day the week ending Sept. 3, just before the holiday weekend, and a peak this summer of 2,351 a day the week ending Aug. 7.
Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said it was unclear how many cases are being diagnosed through home tests and not reported to the department.
But, she said, "at this point in time, just given the numbers that we usually report, we are not seeing a spike at this point."
"I would say I'm pleased to see it," she said.
"It's hard for me to be surprised about much right now in terms of the pandemic."
Arkansas' new cases and hospitalizations began trending upward in late June, then rose rapidly in July in a surge that was blamed on the highly transmissible delta variant and the state's low vaccination rate.
The more recent decline is "a little bit similar to what has been observed in other countries where delta first hit," Dillaha said.
"They have had a downward trend, and then later on they began to have an upward trend."
She said it's hard to explain the ups and downs.
"There's a lot about covid spread and trends that we don't understand yet, and so part of it could be that the spread is mitigated by factors other than, say vaccination and practices," she said.
"It could be that there's enough people infected, coupled with the immunity provided by vaccines, that it's having some influence on the behavior or the pattern of spread."
Given the potential for a resurgence, she said it's still important for people to get vaccinated and take precautions such as wearing a mask in public places, practicing social distancing and avoiding crowds.
"Right now, we still have way too many people in the hospital for us to let up and think it will go down without staying very focused on our efforts to reduce the spread," she said.
After falling the previous four days, the number of covid-19 patients on ventilators rose by eight, to 289.
The number in intensive care rose by 18, to 450, after falling the previous five days.
The number of intensive care unit beds that were unoccupied statewide fell by one, to 32.
Covid-19 patients made up about 40% of all people in intensive care on Wednesday, up from about 38% a day earlier.
In a change that went into effect Wednesday, masks are now optional for students, staff and visitors at the Cabot School District's junior high and high schools.
The district's board voted 4-3 for the change at a special meeting Tuesday night, district spokeswoman Liz Massey said.
Face coverings continue to be required for pupils, employees and visitors in the elementary and middle schools, which house kindergarten through sixth grades, according to the district website.
Children under 12 are ineligible for any of the covid-19 vaccinations.
The district logged a combined 27 covid-19 cases on Monday and Tuesday, according to its website.
The Health Department reported Monday that the district had 101 active cases among students and employees, the highest number in the state, and a cumulative 454 cases since Aug. 1.
"The superintendent in consultation with the School Board may re-implement a face covering requirement at specific schools based on an increase in positivity and/or quarantine rates," the revised policy states.
The district continues to "highly recommend" that all students, staff and visitors wear a face covering, the website says.
That, in part, is to minimize the chances of a student or employee having to quarantine and miss school in the event there is a close contact with a person with covid-19.
"Students who are identified as close contacts with a covid-positive individual are not required to quarantine as long as both individuals are properly wearing a face covering and are symptom-free," the district said, citing state Department of Education guidance.
Elementary and middle school students and employees must wear face coverings while indoors or riding a bus when distancing of six feet is not possible or practical.
That includes any time a student is on elementary or middle school district property during the school day or on district-owned transportation.
Elementary and middle school pupils may remove face coverings when outdoors or during physical activity.
Students may also remove face coverings when eating or drinking.
The younger children may remove face coverings on a case-by-case basis for specific instructional needs and other activities, as determined by a teacher.
In those cases, teachers will use appropriate social distancing measures.
The newly revised policy will remain in effect until it is rescinded by the superintendent in consultation with the School Board.
A small group of adults had earlier sued the district to end the mask mandate but were unsuccessful.
The vote to relax the mandate for secondary schools came as the Springdale School Board voted 4-1 Tuesday night to end its mask requirement for elementary schools.
The Springdale board in August had approved a mask mandate for students, employees and others in elementary schools and made masks optional for secondary school students.
The Health Department reported Monday that Springdale -- the state's largest district by enrollment -- had 76 active covid-19 cases among students and employees, the third-highest total among the state's 262 school systems.
It had the highest number of cumulative cases since Aug. 1, at 541.
Like the Springdale School Board, other school boards in the state have set dates in the coming days and weeks to review their positions on masks as a deterrent to the spread of covid-19.
Dillaha said she'd recommend keeping mask requirements in place for all grades.
"From my perspective, at this point in time, with the delta variant, everyone should wear a mask in an indoor setting, and that would include schools," she said.
Although children age 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, even people who are fully vaccinated can contract the virus pass it to others, Dillaha noted.
Also, the vaccination rate among children remains low.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45.4% of Arkansas children age 12-17 had received at least one vaccine dose as of Tuesday, and 33.8% were fully vaccinated.
"We have a long way to go before we have a high enough vaccine uptake in that age group to really protect those kids like they deserve to be protected," Dillaha said.
Among the state's adults, by contrast, 66.3% had received at least one dose, and 53.5% were fully vaccinated.
The Little Rock School District, which has a mask requirement for all grades, reported that it had five cases among students in the 24 hours ending at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
An additional 32 students and one staff member were required to quarantine after being near someone who tested positive.
UA CASES UP
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville reported an increase in active cases over a two-day period that ended Tuesday.
The cases rose by about 21%, from 78 to 94.
The increase reported on UA's website Wednesday came after active cases had been on the decline last week.
On Saturday and a week earlier, Razorbacks football games at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium drew tens of thousands of students and other fans.
Attendance was listed at 74,531 on Saturday for the game against rival University of Texas and 64,065 for the season opener against Rice University.
Last fall, UA and other colleges limited game attendance to allow for social distancing.
This year, stadiums on college campuses have returned to normal capacity.
No information has been released linking game attendance to the new cases, but the state's health secretary, in response to a question about the game on Saturday, has spoken about being watchful for new case trends.
"In regard to the question about the football game, we would tend to see this about a week after, 5-7 days after, we should start to see increasing numbers of cases," Health Secretary Jose Romero said Tuesday.
Covid-19 symptoms can emerge two to 14 days after exposure to the coronavirus, according to the CDC.
The total of 94 active cases at UA included 85 among students.
ACTIVE CASES FALL
The number of patients hospitalized with covid-19, in intensive care and on ventilators statewide have all declined significantly the heights they reached last month.
The number on ventilators, however, remained larger on Wednesday by 21 than its peak in January during the winter surge.
Already at its lowest level since July 28, the number of cases in the state that were considered active fell Wednesday by 389, to 16,695, as recoveries and deaths outpaced new cases.
According to CDC rankings on Wednesday, based on data as of Tuesday, Arkansas continued to have the country's 17th-highest number of new cases per capita over a rolling seven-day span.
In new deaths per capita, Arkansas was roughly tied with Mississippi for the second-highest rate after Louisiana.
Within Arkansas, Pulaski County had the most new cases on Wednesday, 202, followed by Washington County, which had 148, and Benton County, which had 133.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 479,110.
Dillaha said half of the deaths reported Wednesday happened within the past month. The others occurred in July or early August.
She said 11.8% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive during the seven-day span ending Tuesday, up from the 11.6% that was initially reported for the week ending Monday but still down from a recent high of 16.3% the week ending Aug. 4.
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 Wednesday by 55, to 25,218.
The number who have ever been on a ventilator rose by nine, to 2,563.
Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said the number of people claiming winnings from lottery tickets distributed as rewards for receiving a vaccine dose dropped last week for the fourth week in a row.
He said 274 tickets were cashed in last week, down from 394 the previous week and 642 the week ending Aug. 15.
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 19,894 lottery tickets and 8,233 Game and Fish Commission gift certificates had been given out as of Wednesday.
So far, one person, a Texas man who had been visiting relatives in Arkansas, has won $1 million from one of the tickets and one person has one $1,000.
The other winnings, in amounts ranging from $20 to $500, rose last week by $12,070, to $240,230.
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.
Meanwhile, at 7,557, the increase in vaccine doses that providers reported having administered, including second and third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, was smaller by 160 than the one the previous Wednesday.
The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 7,508, which was down from 7,580 a day the previous week and 11,341 a day during all of August.
Of the doses reported Wednesday, Dillaha said 2,884 were first doses, 4,291 were second doses and 377 were third doses, which have been authorized for certain people with compromised immune systems.
Information about the dose number was unavailable for five of the doses, she said.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans of all ages who had received at least one vaccine dose grew Wednesday by 2,369, to 1,650,867, representing about 54.7% of the population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 4,133, to 1,327,589, or about 44% of the population.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to ranked 37th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose and 42nd, ahead of Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Idaho, Wyoming and West Virginia, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 63.4% of people had received at least one vaccine dose, and 54.1% were fully vaccinated.
Information for this article was contributed by Jaime Adame of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.