The number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas fell below 100 for the first time since May 2020 on Wednesday even as the state posted a slight uptick in new cases.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Arkansas Department of Health, rose by six, to 11,296.
Dropping for the third day in a row, the number hospitalized fell by seven, to 96, its lowest level since May 24, 2020.
"Even 100 people in the hospital is still a lot of people, but it was really nice to see it below 100," Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said.
The state's count of cases grew by 115, an increase that was larger by 13 than the one on Tuesday and by 18 than the rise the previous Wednesday.
After falling to a nearly 23-month low a day earlier, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose Wednesday to 81.
The number of cases that were considered active, which dropped below 1,000 on Tuesday for the first time since May 2020, rose Wednesday by 29, to 992, as new cases outpaced recoveries and deaths.
It was just the fourth time the reported total had risen rather than fallen since it peaked at an all-time high of 102,576 on Jan. 22, during a surge of infections from the omicron variant.
"It's hard to know how to interpret it when they're this low," Dillaha said of the uptick in new cases.
She noted that many people are using at-home tests, the results of which aren't required to be reported to the Health Department.
"To me the better indicator of trend is going to be the hospitalizations," she said.
She said one of the deaths reported Wednesday was from January, and the rest occurred within the past month.
Rising for the third day in a row, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators went up Wednesday by one, to 23.
After falling a day earlier, the number who were in intensive care also rose by one, to 33.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center, where the number of covid-19 patients peaked at 99 in January, had just three on Wednesday, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
That was still up from a week earlier, when the Little Rock hospital had no patients with an active covid-19 infection for the first time since March 2020.
Taylor said UAMS Medical Center hadn't had another day with zero covid-19 patients since that day last week.
She said one of the patients on Wednesday had been fully vaccinated. None were in intensive care or on ventilators.
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's had six covid-19 patients on Wednesday, which was up from three as of Monday, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
She said none of the patients on Wednesday were in intensive care or on ventilators.
Hospitals in Washington and Benton counties had a combined total of just seven covid-19 patients on Wednesday, the same number as a day earlier and down from eight on Monday, according to a daily update from the Northwest Arkansas Council, a business group.
During the omicron surge, the number of covid-19 patients in the two counties hit an all-time high of 183 on Jan. 24.
After falling sharply from the heights they reached in January, the state's new infection numbers may have reached a plateau, Dillaha said.
"The omicron variant is just so transmissible that I imagine it will continue to circulate and find people who aren't immune," Dillaha said.
"I think we'll see a continuous low level of cases, and from time to time, we may see a spike."
Cases could also begin trending upward again as people's immunity from past infections wanes, she added.
In the meantime, BA.2, a subvariant of omicron that has been blamed for surges in some countries, doesn't seem to be causing an upswing in infections in much of the United States, although new cases have been rising in some Northeastern states, she said.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates updated Tuesday, BA.2 caused 72.2 percent of cases in the country last week, up from 57.3 percent the previous week.
"I'm thinking that we may not see a spike in BA.2 for at least a little while -- until people's immunity wanes enough that we start seeing an increase," Dillaha said.
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 23, on Wednesday, followed by Washington County with 15 and Benton County with 13.
No other county had more than five new cases. Thirty-seven of the state's 75 counties didn't have any new cases.
The state's cumulative count of cases since March 2020 rose to 833,380.
Continuing an uptick that began last week, the Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 2,598, which was larger by more than 1,500 than the daily increase a week earlier.
More than half of the latest increase was from doses that were classified on the Health Department's online coronavirus dashboard as not having an "available dose number."
For now, that's how the department is listing second booster doses, which were authorized last week for people who are 50 or older or have compromised immune systems.
People age 18 and older who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for their initial shot and booster also became eligible to get a shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine as a second booster four months after their first booster.
The Health Department's tally of first doses rose Wednesday by 426, which was larger by 53 than the increase in first doses a week earlier.
Growing for the seventh day in a row, the average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose Wednesday to 1,996, which was up from a record low of 867 a day the previous week.
The average for first doses rose to 406.
According to the CDC, 66.3 percent of Arkansans had received at least one dose as of Wednesday, up from 66.2 percent a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated remained at 54 percent.
Of those who were fully vaccinated, 38.9 percent had received a booster dose, up from 38.8 percent as of Tuesday.
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 and 46th, ahead of Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Wyoming and Alabama, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 77.1 percent of people had received at least one dose, and 65.7 percent were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 45.1 percent had received a booster dose.