Arkansas reported a near-record 65 deaths from the coronavirus Wednesday as its count of cases rose by 2,467.
After dipping Tuesday, the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals and on ventilators rose Wednesday but remained below the record levels reached Monday.
"We continue to see the devastating results of COVID-19 across Arkansas," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement that noted the 65 additional deaths.
"Our efforts to wear a mask, keep our distance, and wash our hands frequently must remain steady as we continue to distribute vaccine doses across the state."
Meanwhile, despite an announcement by President Donald Trump's administration Tuesday that it would significantly ramp up the amount of vaccine going to states, state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said Wednesday that she doesn't expect much of an increase next week.
She said she's expecting enough of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to provide the initial shots to 18,525 people -- the same amount the state received this week.
She also expects about enough of the Moderna vaccine to provide the initial shots for 18,600 more people, up just slightly from the 17,700 initial Moderna doses the state was allocated for this week.
The state will also receive doses of each vaccine to provide booster shots for people who received initial doses earlier.
"The total doses we're receiving for next week are not going up," Dillaha said. "They're the same as what we received this week.
"So that means that we really cannot expand our networks of pharmacies and clinics to administer the vaccines."
At the same time, the number of Arkansans eligible for the shots is scheduled to grow by more than 400,000 on Monday as the state makes it available to people age 70 and older and to employees of elementary and secondary schools and higher education institutions.
Those are some of the groups that fall under Phase 1-B of the state's vaccination plan.
Under Phase 1-A, about 180,000 people are now eligible, including health care workers, first responders and residents and workers in long-term care facilities.
"I think it's important for people to understand that even though we're moving from Phase 1-A to 1-B, and 1-B is so much bigger, the roll-out to 1-B is going to take time because we have not yet received any increase in our weekly allocation," Dillaha said.
Shots won't be available until later for other "front-line essential workers," such as those working in factories and grocery stores, who also fall under Phase 1-B of the state's plan.
John Vinson, chief executive of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said pharmacies that have been participating in the vaccination effort have already filled their appointment slots for the next two weeks, based on the preliminary assumption that the amount of doses they've been receiving will be the same.
"I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say the phone systems and scheduling softwares were overloaded on Tuesday when the governor announced we were moving to age 70 and above for next week," Vinson said.
"The demand was really high."
Trump administration officials' statements on Tuesday urging states to make the shots available immediately to people age 65 and older or with chronic health conditions "has created some confusion," he added.
Under Arkansas' plan, people age 65-69 or with health conditions putting them at greater risk of complications from covid-19 fall under Phase 1-C, which isn't expected to start until April.
"There's a population of patients 65 to 70 who think that starting Monday if you're 65 or older you can get vaccinated," Vinson said. "So we are working through some of that and having to correct that information."
DEATHS NEAR RECORD
The increase in the state's death toll, which brought the state's total number of coronavirus deaths to 4,186, was just short of the record 66 that were added to the state's count on Dec. 29.
It tied with the number reported a week earlier, on Jan. 6.
Dillaha said all but five of the deaths added to the state's count Wednesday happened within the past month.
Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said two of the deaths occurred earlier in December and three happened in November.
The rise in cases, meanwhile, was smaller than the 3,705 that were added to the state's tallies the previous Wednesday.
After reaching a high of 3,086 on Sunday, the average number of cases added to the state's tallies each day over a rolling seven-day period fell Wednesday for the third straight day, to 2,775.
Dillaha said the high number of deaths and people in the hospital remain concerning, but she hoped the drop in new cases "could represent the start of a new trend."
"I'm hopeful that it means that people are getting back to their day-to-day routines after the holidays, and maybe they're more diligent about their mask wearing and social distancing," she said.
The number of coronavirus patients in Arkansas' hospitals rose Wednesday by eight, to 1,362.
That was still short of the record 1,371 virus patients who were in the state's hospitals as of Monday.
Likewise, the number of coronavirus patients who were on ventilators rose by four, to 255, but remained below the record 268 virus patients who were on breathing machines two days earlier.
After reaching a high of 458 on Monday, the number of coronavirus patients who were in intensive care units fell Wednesday for the second straight day, from 451 on Tuesday to 432 as of 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Dillaha said the state was still working on its plan for where the vaccine will go next week and other details of how it will be distributed.
"We're encouraging pharmacies and hospitals in counties to collaborate among each other for how they will vaccinate," she said.
"In some counties, they may be going on site to the school to vaccinate. In other counties, they may be having a special drive-thru clinic for the school district.
"In other counties, they may have a facility either at the pharmacy or some other place where the school teachers and staff would make an appointment or come through and get vaccinated.
"We're trying to be flexible and let the local community work together to decide how they want to do it, because communities are just so different from each other."
She said people age 70 and older should contact the nearest participating pharmacy to make an appointment. A map of the pharmacies is available on the Health Department's website, healthy.arkansas.gov.
Teachers and other school employees should contact their employers for information on how to get the shots, she said.
Vinson said he's encouraged pharmacies to plan on setting aside 30%-50% of their doses for school employees, depending on the number of employees and older people in the surrounding area.
He said he'd also recommend that pharmacies ask school districts to identify their highest-priority employees to receive the shots.
"Just as clinicians, as health professionals, we need to be able to triage and work with our schools to say, who are the educators that are over 50, or that have chronic diseases that have the highest risk?" he said.
"If we can't vaccinate everybody in the school district next week, could you identify those that might need it the most?"
Under the Phase 1-A vaccine program being administered by the state, pharmacies, hospitals and other providers had received 251,600 doses as of Wednesday morning.
They reported having administered 102,657 of those, up from 88,449 a day earlier.
Walgreens and CVS were allocated an additional 24,700 doses for residents and workers at long-term care facilities in Arkansas as part of a federal program.
Those companies reported administering 4,169 doses as of Wednesday morning, up from 3,884 a day earlier.
The actual number of shots given is higher than the Health Department's figures because providers have three days to report the doses they administer.
Virus concerns prompted the Pulaski County Special School District to announce Wednesday that Cato Elementary School in Sherwood will shift to virtual instruction for the rest of this week and all of next week.
Students will return to in-person classes on Jan. 25.
"Cato Elementary has quarantined an increasing number of students and staff in a short period of time who have been identified as probable close contacts," the district said in a news release.
"Although the number of actual positive cases for COVID-19 are low, we want to ensure that all students and staff remain healthy and safe."
ACTIVE CASES FALL
The cases that were added to the state's tallies on Wednesday included 1,591 that were confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.
The other 876 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 262,020.
That comprised 212,464confirmed cases and 49,556 probable ones.
The number of cases that were active fell by 607, to 25,095, as 3,009 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
Pulaski had the largest number of new cases, 378, followed by Benton County with 284, Washington County with 269, Sebastian County with 152 and Faulkner County with 108.
Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department's count of cases grew by two.
The state's death toll rose by 46, to 3,470, among confirmed cases and by 19, to 716, among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths grew by 17, to 1,688.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 rose by 101, to 12,414.
The number of virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator grew by nine, to 1,315.
Meanwhile, the Heath Department reported that 12.9% of the PCR tests performed on Arkansans over a seven-day span ending Tuesday were positive.
That was down slightly from the 13.6% that was initially reported for the week that ended Monday.
The percentage for that period later rose to 14.4% as more tests results were reported.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep that percentage -- a gauge of whether a state's testing is adequate -- below 10%, but it has been above that benchmark since Nov. 28.