After a slowdown around Thanksgiving, Arkansas' surge in coronavirus cases resumed Tuesday, with the state's count of cases rising by more than 1,000 and the number of people hospitalized with the virus topping 400, a level not seen in more than a month.
Health Secretary Jose Romero said the increase in cases -- the first in a single day since late September that topped 1,000 -- likely reflected some infections identified among people who put off being tested until after the holiday weekend.
Some of the cases could have also resulted from transmission that occurred during Thanksgiving gatherings, he said.
"If this continues, we are definitely in another surge," Romero said.
"Whether we will reach that peak that we did on the summer surge is unknown yet."
The state's count of cases rose by 1,044, the largest one-day increase since Sept. 29.
Rising for the fifth day in a row, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 went up by 19, to 409, its highest level since Oct. 22.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 12, to 8,667.
At Gov. Asa Hutchinson's weekly news conference at the state Capitol, Romero noted that the number of people hospitalized with the virus was up by almost 20% compared with a week earlier.
Urging parents to get their children vaccinated, he said 30% of the new cases have been occurring in children and teenagers ages 5-18.
"It's important that parents realize that this virus does affect children," Romero said. "It can have long-term consequences."
While hospitals have adequate capacity now, Romero said they could be stressed by the combination of a coronavirus surge and a flu season that he expects to be more severe than the previous two seasons.
The omicron variant, which was first identified last month in southern Africa, is an additional concern.
"If we happen to have omicron, that will certainly push us over the edge," Romero said.
The variant has raised fears among public health officials because of its large number of mutations. It had not been found in the United States as of Tuesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Arkansas on Tuesday reported its first flu death of the current season, which began in October. The state reported 24 deaths during the previous season and 125 during the 2019-20 season.
Hutchinson said much about the omicron variant remains unknown, but "there's some indications that the current vaccines will be effective against that."
He called vaccines "our best solution," adding that people who aren't vaccinated should wear a mask and practice social distancing.
After falling the previous two days, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators rose Tuesday by eight, to 73, its highest level since Nov. 7.
The number who were in intensive care rose by three, to 173, the largest number since Oct. 27.
The number of intensive care unit beds in the state's hospitals that were unoccupied fell by 20, to 59, with covid-19 patients continuing to make up about 16% of all the people in intensive care.
AN UPWARD TREND
Hutchinson said he'd like to think the spike in cases Tuesday represented a catch-up day after "an accumulation of some slow days over the holidays."
But he noted that the percentage of the state's coronavirus tests that are positive has also been increasing, which "indicates that we are trending upward."
According to the Health Department, the percentage the week ending Monday was 9.3%, the highest over a seven-day span in more than a month and up from a recent low of 6.8% in late October.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%.
In addition to urging vaccinations for children, Romero reiterated the need for women who are pregnant or considering getting pregnant to get the vaccine.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant women have an increased risk of severe illness from covid-19, which also increases the risk of complications during pregnancy.
"There's a lot of misinformation about the safety of the vaccine in that population," Romero said.
"The vaccine is safe and effective. Pregnant women and women thinking of becoming pregnant should consider this vaccine for themselves."
People who were unvaccinated accounted for 77.8% of the state's active cases as of Tuesday, according to the Health Department.
Since Feb. 1, 85.9% of the state's cases, 87.8% of its hospitalizations from covid-19 and 85.9% of its deaths from the virus have been among people who were not fully vaccinated.
SCHOOL CASES DOWN
Among students and employees at Arkansas schools, the number of active cases, as tracked in Health Department reports released twice a week, fell significantly Monday after a week in which most schools and college campuses were closed for part, if not all, of the week.
At public elementary and secondary schools, the number of active cases fell 43%, to 705, from Nov. 24 to Monday.
The total as of Monday was down by more than half compared with a week earlier.
"We don't read too much into that because most districts were out the entire week" last week, state Education Secretary Johnny Key said.
"What we do anticipate [is] that if there had been any transmission cycles occurring in the public schools, that last week gave us a chance to maybe break those," he added.
With three weeks until Christmas break, he said he was "looking forward to a strong finish to this semester."
The Education Department is encouraging more 5- to 17-year-olds to get vaccinated, including at vaccine clinics at schools, "so that we can see a good second semester with [a] minimal number of cases," he said.
Forty-five of the state's 261 traditional and charter school systems had five or more active cases as of Monday, down from 75 districts and charter schools systems on Nov. 24.
The Cabot School District had the most active cases with 34 on Monday.
The North Little Rock School District followed that with 28. Academics Plus Charter Schools, based in Maumelle, had 24.
The Rogers School District had 23 active cases, and the Bentonville and Fort Smith school districts had 20 each.
Elsewhere in the state, the Springdale School District, the state's largest, had 14 active cases. The Little Rock School District, the second-largest, had 15.
Since Aug. 1, a total of 26,907 public school students and employees have tested positive for the virus. The Springdale district has had 1,042 of those cases.
Eight active cases were reported for private elementary and secondary schools as of Monday, but no system was singled out for having five or more. Twenty-one cases were reported Nov. 24.
Private schools have had a total of 727 cases since Aug. 1.
Seventy-two active cases were reported for colleges and universities Monday, down from 107 on Nov. 24.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville had 20 active cases Monday, the same number that was reported Nov. 24. Nine cases were reported Monday for the University of Central Arkansas.
The cumulative number of cases at colleges and universities since Aug. 1 is 3,464.
CASES BY COUNTY
Statewide, Pulaski County had the most new cases Tuesday with 108, followed by Benton County with 85 and Craighead County with 67.
The state's cumulative count of cases since March 2020 rose to 528,838.
After falling a day earlier, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose to 530, which was still down from an average of 630 per day a week earlier.
With new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose by 335, to 5,699.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 91, to 28,398.
The number who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by 12, to 2,995.
At 12,969, the increase in the Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered was the first one in six days that was larger than the one a week earlier.
Booster shots made up 43% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 4,660, which was up by more than 1,000 from the increase in first doses a week earlier.
The average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose to 7,245, which was down from an average of more than 9,900 doses a day the previous week.
The average for first doses rose to 2,629, which was down from 3,350 a day a week earlier.
According to the CDC, 60.5% of Arkansans had received at least one dose as of Tuesday, up from 60.4% a day earlier.
The percentage who had been fully vaccinated remained at 49.3%.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 21% had received booster doses, up from 20.9% a day earlier.
Among children ages 5-11, who became eligible for a low-dose version of the Pfizer vaccine last month, the number who had received at least one dose rose by 220, to 25,598, representing about 9.4% of the children in that age group.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas ranked 36th in the percentage of its residents of all ages who had received at least one vaccine dose and 44th, ahead of Louisiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho and West Virginia, in the percentage who had been fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 70.2% of people had received at least one dose, and 59.4% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 20.9% of people had received booster doses.