Arkansas on Friday reported no new deaths from the coronavirus for the second time in less than two weeks even as the decline in the state's new cases showed further signs of stalling.
Excluding Jan. 29 and 30, when the department didn't release new numbers as it switched to a new data system, Friday was the third day this year that the state didn't report any new covid-19 deaths.
The other days were Feb. 21, when state offices were closed for George Washington's Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day, and March 29.
On Friday, the death toll stood at 11,301.
Meanwhile, after weeks of sharp declines, the state's new-case numbers appeared to have leveled off.
"It's kind of reminiscent of where we were at this point last year," when the state's new cases reached their lowest point of the year after a winter surge, state Epidemiologist Mike Cima said.
Compared with that period, which preceded a summer surge powered by the delta variant, the state's new-case numbers are even lower.
The state's case count rose Friday by 110, which was larger by five than the increase on Thursday and was higher by three than the number for the previous Friday.
After falling slightly a day earlier, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose slightly, to 81, which was still down from an average of 91 a day as of a week earlier.
With new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 13, to 1,035.
It was the third day in a row that the total rose after dipping below 1,000 on Tuesday for the first time since May 2020.
Before this week, the total hadn't risen for two or more consecutive days since it peaked at a record high of 102,576 on Jan. 22, during a surge of infections from the omicron variant.
"It's hard for these numbers to go much lower, to be completely honest, especially with how contagious omicron is," Cima said.
"This does feel like maybe the low set point, but I wouldn't be mad if it went even lower."
After falling the previous four days, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose Friday by three, to 98.
The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators, however, fell by four, to 19, after not changing the previous day.
It was the first time the number had been below 20 since April 16.
After rising the previous two days, the number of covid-19 patients who were in intensive care fell Friday by six, to 29, the smallest number since at least May 2020.
Thanks to a decline in covid-19 hospital admissions in two east Arkansas counties, none of the state's counties was subject to a recommendation that people wear masks in indoor spaces under the latest update to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's map of "covid-19 community levels."
Before the weekly update, dated Thursday, the CDC had recommended that people in Arkansas and Monroe counties wear masks because the covid-19 level in those counties -- based on their weekly hospital admissions per 100,000 residents -- was considered "high."
The level for the two counties, which share a service area used by the CDC to calculate hospital metrics, fell Thursday to "medium" because of a drop in admissions during the week ending Tuesday.
A rise in admissions in the service area shared by Ashley and Chicot counties in southeastern Arkansas, meanwhile, caused the covid-19 level in those counties to rise from "low" to medium.
The level stayed at medium in nine counties, including Pulaski, that are clustered around Central Arkansas, and it stayed low in the state's 62 other counties.
Cima noted that in sparsely populated areas, just a few hospitalizations can be enough to affect a county's label on the CDC map.
Still, he said, "I do think the information that we can get from that map is helpful, and it helps individuals understand what the burden of covid-19 is like within their respective communities."
The update on Thursday was the second time since the CDC unveiled its guidance based on the levels in late February that no Arkansas counties were subject to mask recommendations.
The other time was March 24-March 30, when all counties in Arkansas were labeled as having a low covid-19 level.
In addition to hospital admissions, the covid-19 community levels are based on a county's new cases and the percentage of its hospital beds that are occupied by covid-19 patients.
In counties with a medium covid-19 level, the CDC recommends that people who are immunocompromised or at high risk of severe complications talk to their health care providers about whether they should wear masks or take other precautions.
People in medium-level counties should also consider wearing masks around people who have a high risk of severe covid-19, according to the CDC.
In counties with low covid-19 levels, the CDC doesn't have a recommendation about whether people should wear masks.
Before it announced the guidance based on covid-19 community levels, the CDC had recommended wearing masks indoors in areas with "substantial" or "high" levels of community transmission and in schools regardless of the level of transmission in the community.
As of Thursday, three Arkansas counties, Crawford, Drew and Jackson, were considered to have high levels of transmission because at least 10% of the molecular coronavirus tests in those counties were positive during the week ending Monday.
The transmission level, which also factors in new cases per 100,000 residents, was considered "moderate" in 48 other counties and "low" in 24.
In a statement released Friday, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement's health policy board called for community and religious leaders to observe a day of "reflection and healing" on April 27 "to acknowledge the lasting pain from the pandemic and show those who are grieving that they are not alone."
"As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 Pandemic and our daily activities are returning to normal, it is important to pause and reflect on the impact and loss we have all experienced," the board, made up of a variety of health care professionals, government officials and others, said in the statement.
It noted that because of restrictions on visitors, many people "were unable to be with their loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes when they passed away, and the pandemic often prevented families and communities from coming together to mourn those they lost."
Health care workers are also "experiencing post-traumatic effects from their heroic efforts on the front lines of the pandemic," while others may have experienced lingering covid-19 symptoms, disrupted educational or professional goals or psychological distress, the board said.
"We all want to move on from the pandemic, but in our rush to return to normalcy we may have robbed ourselves of the time we need to process the many layers of trauma that we've experienced over the past two years," the board said.
Center spokesman John Lyon said in an email that the board chose April 27 because it wanted a date that was "fairly close" to the two-year anniversary of the first covid-19 case in Arkansas, on March 11, "but also a time of year when it would likely be warmer out, so people could do things outside."
In a news release, the center said it would provide updates "as more information about plans for the day becomes available."
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 27, on Friday, followed by Washington County with 17 and Benton County with 11.
No other county had 10 or more new cases.
Forty-three of the state's 75 counties didn't have any new cases.
The state's cumulative count of cases since March 2020 rose to 833,595.
Continuing an uptick that began last week, the Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 3,183, which was larger by 850 than the increase the previous Friday.
Almost 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 count of first doses rose Friday by 626, which was larger by 208 than the increase in first doses a week earlier.
The average number of total doses reported each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 2,340, which was more than double the average for the previous week.
The average for first doses rose to 458.
According to the CDC, the percentage of Arkansans who had received at least one dose remained Friday at 66.3%, and the percentage who had been fully vaccinated remained at 54.1%.
The percentage of those fully vaccinated who had received a booster dose remained at 38.9%.
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% of people had received at least one dose, and 65.7% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 45.2% had received a booster dose.