Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases shot up Wednesday by almost 14,500, setting a new record for a single-day increase, while the number of people hospitalized in the state with the virus jumped to a record 1,600 and the state's cumulative count of cases topped 700,000.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 10, to 9,462.
"After a holiday weekend with lower testing and cases, we saw a record increase in new cases and hospitalizations today," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"Vaccine doses administered are lower than they need to be, and we know the vaccine drastically lowers your chances of severe symptoms and hospitalizations."
Continuing a surge powered by the rapidly spreading omicron variant, the state's count of cases rose by 14,494, setting a record for a single-day increase for the eighth time in three weeks.
Previously the record was the 12,990 cases added to the state's count on Jan. 13.
Before the current surge, the largest one-day increase the state had recorded was a jump of 4,304 cases on Jan. 1, 2021.
The increase on Wednesday brought the state's total case count since the start of the pandemic to 702,483, pushing it over 700,000 just 12 days after it topped 600,000.
Rising to a new all-time high for the second day in a row, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 jumped by 113, to 1,600, setting a new record for a one-day increase.
Previously, the record daily increase in the number hospitalized was a rise of 103 on Aug. 9 during the summer surge driven by the delta variant.
Before this week, the record for the total number of hospitalized covid-19 patients was 1,459 on Aug. 16.
After falling by one a day earlier, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators jumped Wednesday by 21, to 192.
The number who were in intensive care rose by 24, to 405.
Both numbers remained below their previous peaks during surges last winter and in the summer of last year, although the number in intensive care was approaching the level it reached last winter.
The number on ventilators peaked at 388 during the summer surge last year and at 268 last winter.
The number who were in intensive care peaked at 558 during the summer and 458 in January 2021.
At hospitals around the state, just 32 intensive care unit beds were unoccupied on Wednesday, down from 38 a day earlier.
The percentage of all intensive care unit patients who had covid-19 rose from less than 33% on Tuesday to more than 35%.
After falling the previous two days, following a slowdown in testing over the holiday weekend, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose Wednesday to 8,812, which remained below the record average of 9,122 cases a day the week ending Sunday.
Similarly, with new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose Wednesday by 6,440, to 95,378, which remained below the all-time high of 96,379 cases that were active as of Sunday.
At its 11 hospitals around the state, Baptist Health had 319 covid-19 patients on Wednesday, surpassing the previous day's record of 312, spokeswoman Cara Wade said in an email.
"If you look at today's hospitalized patients in the state, one in four of those patients are being treated in one of our Baptist Health hospitals," Wade said. "Our medical staff says the majority of these patients are generally older with other comorbidities contributing to their hospitalization."
The 319 patients on Wednesday included 81 who were in intensive care and 52 who were on ventilators.
By comparison, during the delta surge in the summer, the number in intensive care hit a record 146 in August, and the number on ventilators peaked at a record 103 in September.
Of all the system's covid-19 patients on Wednesday, 27% had been fully vaccinated but had not received booster dose. Just 8% were fully vaccinated and boosted.
"We are also seeing the highest positivity rates with testing across our system with 51.3 percent positivity," Wade said, referring to the percentage of covid-19 tests that are positive.
"The highest is 63 percent positivity at our Baptist Health-Fort Smith testing site."
She said the health system is hoping that the "slight lowering of active cases in the state will soon help with the need for hospital beds."
"We've also seen a decline in our demand for testing," Wade said.
She said the number of the health system's 11,000 employees who were off work for reasons related to covid-19 dropped from 584 earlier this week to 323, of whom "a large number are waiting on test results."
"Though it is too early to call this a trend, we find these numbers to be encouraging," Wade said.
As of Wednesday, the health system had opened all of the 63 hospital beds in Conway and Van Buren that are being staffed with American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated by the state last week.
Those include 24 general beds and four ICU beds at Baptist Health Medical Center-Conway and 35 general beds at Baptist Health-Van Buren.
"All of these beds are now operational and we've already begun to receive patients in those beds," Wade said.
The $8 million in federal funds were allocated to open and staff the beds for 28 days.
Arkansas Children's Hospital also has opened the 10 beds for which it will receive $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
The Little Rock hospital and Arkansas Children's Northwest in Springdale had a total of 46 covid-19 patients on Wednesday, surpassing the previous day's record of 41.
The patients on Wednesday included six who were in intensive care and four who were on ventilators.
More than half the 46 patients were at least 5 years old, making them eligible for vaccination, but only four had been fully vaccinated.
Of the 265 beds at 11 hospitals that the state allocated $50.1 million to open and staff, at least 89 other beds at four other hospitals had also been opened as of Wednesday, Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center had 94 covid-19 patients on Wednesday, up from 73 a day earlier and breaking the previous record of 82 on Friday, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
The patients on Wednesday included 12 who were in intensive care and eight who were on ventilators. In addition, she said, five covid-19 patients died in the past week.
She said 32 of the 94 patients in the hospital had been fully vaccinated. She didn't have information on how many had received booster doses.
She said the hospital has been moving patients around to create more rooms with negative air pressure that can accommodate patients with covid-19.
It's also looking at doubling up covid-19 patients who are from the same family, instead of keeping them in separate rooms, if the surge continues.
She said the hospital is not accepting transfers of covid-19 patients from other hospitals, and is accepting transfers of other types of patients only in emergency situations.
"We can't just tell the patients that are non-covid we're not going to take care of them," Taylor said. "We can't put them out of the hospital, so there may come a point where we can't take [any more] covid or other patients."
Like Baptist Health, she said UAMS had seen a reduction in workers who were off for reasons related to covid-19.
On Wednesday, UAMS, which has about 11,000 employees, had 635 employees who were off work for virus-related reasons, up from 627 a day earlier but down from 684 a week ago, Taylor said.
The number on Wednesday included 351 health care workers, down from 371 a day earlier and 365 a week ago.
The number of employees of all types who were off after testing positive fell from 305 a week earlier to 303 on Tuesday and 276 on Wednesday.
To help with morale, the hospital in August opened a "Rejuvenation Room," outfitted with money from private donations, where clinical workers can sit in massage chairs, journal or meditate, and has held wellness seminars for nurses.
"The fact that our employee [covid-19] numbers are down a little bit is good, but it's hard on the staff," Taylor said of the omicron surge.
"They thought through the other surges that that was it, and then this just keeps going and going and going."
At St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, the number of covid-19 patients set a record for the second day in a row as it rose from 111 on Tuesday to 115, spokesman Mitchell Nail said.
The patients on Wednesday included 20 who were in intensive care and five who were on ventilators.
Two other patients died a day earlier.
While in the past the hospital has operated at more than 90% of capacity, "here lately it's been above 100% capacity," Nail said.
"That's housing people in the emergency department. That's doing whatever you can to find beds," Nail said.
"Your ability to scale up only goes so far. It's rather trying at the moment."
He said the hospital has been seeing an increase in pediatric covid-19 patients, including about five who were in the hospital on Wednesday.
"Children are not being as asymptomatic with omicron as maybe they have been with some of the other variants," he said.
He said more than 60% of the 115 covid-19 patients in the hospital on Wednesday had not been fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, he said a free drive-thru clinic for rapid covid-19 tests for people with symptoms, opened on Saturday with the help of six members from the Arkansas National Guard, had tested 469 people as of Wednesday.
"We just encourage somebody to get tested if they feel slightly off, because the symptoms of covid are so far-reaching," including cold and sinus infection-like symptoms reported by some people with omicron, Nail said.
Hutchinson announced late last month that the state had purchased 1.5 million rapid home covid-19 tests that would be distributed to the public for free at local health units, public libraries and other organizations.
McNeill said in an email Wednesday afternoon that 1,319,040 tests had been distributed.
"The remaining balance of the 1.5 million arrived late last night and will go out first thing in the morning, and all 1.5 million tests will have been delivered and distributed," McNeill said.
Out of the coronavirus tests of all types that were reported to the Health Department, 33.9% were positive over the seven-day span ending Tuesday, up from the 33.2% that was initially reported for the week ending Monday.
The percentage for the week ending Monday, however, later rose to a record 34.3% as more results were reported.
"We still have a ways to go before our hospitals are out of this current overwhelming situation," Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said.
If the number of covid-19 patients in hospitals keeps climbing, she said, "we may enter into a situation where we operate under what's called crisis standards of care, and it will put our providers in the situation where hospitals will have to make very difficult decisions about who gets admitted and who gets certain types of care and who they decline that option to."
CASES BY COUNTY
Pulaski County had the most new cases, 1,658, on Wednesday, followed by Washington County with 1,365 and Benton County with 977.
Dillaha said all the deaths reported Wednesday happened within the past month.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew Wednesday by 185, to 31,247.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by 12, to 3,250.
Despite the surge in cases, a decline in reported vaccinations continued on Wednesday after the holiday weekend.
The Health Department's tally of doses that had been administered rose by 5,034, which was smaller by more than 2,500 compared with the increase the previous Wednesday.
Booster shots made up about 46% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 1,501, which was down by more than 900 from the increase in first doses a week earlier.
The average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 6,379, which was down from more than 7,700 a day a week earlier and more than 12,000 a day in early December.
The average for first doses fell to 2,051.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 64.5% of Arkansans had received one vaccine dose as of Wednesday, up from 64% a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated rose from 52% as of Tuesday to 52.3%.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 34.7% had received a booster dose as of Wednesday, up from 34.6% a day earlier.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its population who had received at least one dose.
In the percentage who were fully vaccinated, it fell from being roughly tied with Tennessee for 44th on Tuesday to 46th, ahead of only Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho.
Nationally, 75.2% of people had received at least one vaccine dose, and 63.1% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 39% had received a booster dose.