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story.lead_photo.caption Nurses Mandy Stuckey (left) and Tonya Green conduct a coronavirus screening in April at a drive-thru site at New Life Church in North Little Rock. The site, and one at Ouachita Baptist Universityin Arkadelphia, is a partnership between two Arkansas companies. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The number of people hospitalized in Arkansas with coronavirus as well as the number of patients in intensive care units and on ventilators reached new highs Monday -- even as the daily increase in cases was 1,268, the lowest it's been in more than two weeks.

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, increased by 38, totaling 4,081.

In a statement, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the additional hospitalizations will add to the load for the state's health care workers.

"The better news is the new cases are starting to slow somewhat," Hutchinson said. "Let's work toward a true downward trend."

The number of virus patients in the state's hospitals rose by 31 to 1,371 on Monday -- the highest number of hospitalized patients since the pandemic officially hit the state in March.

Hospitalizations of virus patients haven't dipped below 1,200 since Jan. 1, when the daily total reached 1,161.

The number of covid-19 patients in intensive care units rose by 17, to 458. The number hasn't gone below 400 since it reached 393 on Jan. 2.

Of those hospitalized on Monday, 268 were on ventilators, up from 31 the previous day.

State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said the low case numbers were likely because of decreased testing over the weekend.

The record hospitalization and ventilator use highs are "very concerning," Dillaha said.

"Our hospital resources are already strained by high case loads, and any increase only makes the situation harder for our health care workers," she said, adding that everyone needs to do their part to limit the virus spread.

"Which can help lower our daily case numbers and ultimately lessen the number of patients who ultimately end up in the hospital and in the ICU," Dillaha said. "This means frequent hand washing, physical distancing, wearing a mask and avoiding gatherings outside of your households."

If the safety guidelines are followed, the cases may plateau and eventually diminish, Dillaha said. But the cases and hospitalizations could get worse if the safety measures are not followed.

"This depends on how seriously Arkansans take the precautions that will help limit the spread," Dillaha said.

VACCINE SUPPLY

Dillaha said health officials are doing everything they can to administer the vaccines as quickly as possible and are looking forward to expanding the priority groups as additional vaccine supply is received.

"We are learning as we go and always looking for ways to make the process more efficient," she said.

As of Monday morning, 80,796 vaccine doses had been administered in the state -- about 44,510 more than the previous Monday, according to Health Department data.

Since Dec. 14, the state has received 129,675 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 73,700 doses of the Moderna vaccine for a total of 203,375 doses received. That's 54,350 doses that have arrived in the state since the previous Monday.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » nwaonline.com/coronavirus]

Of the Pfizer vaccine received, 57,172 doses -- or about 44% -- had been administered as of Monday.

For the Moderna vaccine, 23,624 doses -- about 32% -- had been administered.

That's about 30,479 Pfizer and 14,031 Moderna shots that have been given in the past week.

As part of the Federal Long Term Care Facility Program, Walgreens and CVS have received 24,700 allocations of the vaccine as of Monday.

The two drug retail stores nearly doubled their vaccine shots in the past week, going from giving out 1,324 shots as of the previous Monday to administering 3,423 doses -- or about 14% -- as of Monday.

Dillaha said more deliveries of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are expected this week. Some is allocated for first doses while some will be used as second doses for those who received the initial vaccination about three or four weeks ago.

[Interactive Arkansas map not showing up above? Click here to see it: nwaonline.com/arvirus]

The state is in Phase 1A of its vaccine distribution plan, which means the vaccine is offered to health care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities as well as first responders such as emergency medical service personnel, firefighters and law enforcement officers; medical personnel in primary care, urgent care or student health clinics; dental clinics; home health, private care/personal care; hospice care; dialysis centers; pharmacies; and corrections officers.

Dillaha said the state will move into phase 1-B by Feb. 1, "if not before."

Phase 1-B includes individuals 70 or above; school personnel; and front-line workers in sectors such as manufacturing, food and agriculture, child care and essential government services will get the vaccine after Phase 1-A concludes.

Phase 1C is when some members of the general population will be vaccinated. It includes, among others, adults of any age with chronic health conditions; adults age 65 and older regardless of health status; and workers in transportation and logistics, water and wastewater, food service, shelter and housing, IT and communications, energy, media, public safety and public health workers.

It's in Phase 2 when the general public can be vaccinated.

"We expect that enough vaccine will be available then for everyone who wishes to be vaccinated," Dillaha said.

Dillaha said the Health Department believes the phased approach is the best way to make the vaccine available, "especially when the number of doses allocated to Arkansas is so small."

"Therefore, we are beginning with those who have the highest risk of exposure or of developing serious complications," she said. "While there may be adjustments to the groups within each phase, we are not considering changing this overall approach."

Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said the vaccine is not mandated so there are no records of those who have refused the vaccine.

Those administering the vaccine must ask for verification in the form of a work identification or some other proof of employment to make sure the person is within the correct vaccine phase, McNeill said.

"They must adhere to standards of practice for their profession in regards to their record keeping," McNeill said. "And they all require that administered doses of vaccinations be recorded."

Those administering the shots report the vaccines given to the Health Department's Immunization Information System. While the reporting is done by each individual person, that person's profession or other information certifying they are eligible for the vaccine is not included in the report to the Health Department, McNeill said.

"When we hear of a person being vaccinated in a classification not in the current phase, we attempt to gather more information and verify the facts," she said. "Often, what was reported to us was not accurate."

Still, it's not unheard of -- or against the rules -- for those outside of the current phase to get a vaccine shot.

"If no one in the recommended phase is available at the time that a dose is to expire, they may administer the vaccine outside of the phase in order to keep from wasting a dose," McNeill said.

BY THE NUMBERS

The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 256,344 on Monday -- increasing by 21,563 cases over the past seven days.

That comprised 208,778 confirmed cases and 47,566 probable ones.

The cases added to the state's tally Monday included 1,029 that were confirmed through PCR tests. The other 239 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through antigen tests.

Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department's case count rose by six.

There were 281 Arkansans who lost their lives to the virus in the past seven days -- 18 more than the previous week.

The number of cases that were considered active fell by 1,958, to 25,534. The record for the highest number of active cases was 27,822 on Saturday.

Of the total number of cases, 226,700 are considered recovered, an increase of 3,187 from the previous day.

The state reported that in a 24-hour period, 7,302 polymerase chain reaction tests and 1,464 antigen tests were given -- significantly higher than the previous Monday when 4,473 PCR tests and 439 antigen tests were reported.

Benton County had the largest number of new cases, with 154, followed by Washington County, with 149; Pulaski County, with 146; Sebastian County, with 86 and Garland County, with 69.

HOSPITAL BEDS

There were 58 more available hospital beds on Monday, going from 1,942 beds on Friday to 2,000 on Monday, according to Health Department data.

Weekend hospital statistics are not provided by the Health Department until Monday.

The total beds -- whether filled or vacant -- dropped by 64 over the weekend to 8,860. The total includes more than 300 in psychiatric or rehabilitation facilities that aren't for covid-19 care.

That means that about 77.5% of the state's hospital beds are full.

Available ICU beds jumped by six, going from 37 to 43. Out of 1,156 critical-care beds, less than 4% were available Monday afternoon.

There were 458 patients in ICU beds, 19 less than Friday.

The state inventory of ventilators increased by one to 1,104. About 56%, or 617, ventilators remain available for use, 32 less than Friday.

The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose to 12,184 while the number of patients ever on a ventilator rose to 1,296.

Total bed capacity -- hospital beds that can be staffed whether or not they are occupied -- dropped by 64 beds since Friday to 8,860.

Maximum flex bed capacity -- the number of hospital beds regardless of ability to staff them -- remained at 11,514.

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