The number of people hospitalized in Arkansas with covid-19 rose Wednesday by double digits for the second day in a row, a development that state health officials said could be the result of infections among unvaccinated people over Memorial Day weekend.
The state's count of cases rose by 201 while its death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by two, to 5,854.
"Today's report shows similar case numbers compared to last week but shows an increase in hospitalizations," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"While active cases are declining, this rise in hospitalizations is a reminder of caution and a reason to get vaccinated against COVID-19."
In fact, however, the number of cases in the state that were considered active rose Wednesday by three, to 1,659, as new cases outpaced recoveries.
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That total was up by one from its level the previous Wednesday.
Clay Smith, a social media specialist for Hutchinson, said the tweet referred to a decline in active cases that had been confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests.
That number fell by 14 on Wednesday, while the number of active "probable" cases, which include those identified through less-sensitive antigen tests, rose by 17.
Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the Health Department will receive $40.4 million in federal funding over two years to "address COVID-19-related health disparities."
The funding is part of $2.25 billion awarded to state and local health agencies nationwide to reduce the spread of the virus and lessen its impact among "high-risk and underserved" people, including members of minority groups and people in rural areas.
The money comes from the $900 billion Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act passed by Congress in December.
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Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said in an email that the department's offices of health equity and rural health and primary care "are collaborating with several community and faith-based organizations, as well as academic institutions to reduce disparities associated with COVID-19 among underserved populations."
"The funds will be used to build infrastructure and increase the state's capacity to prevent greater racial and socioeconomic divides in health outcomes," McNeill said.
Further details about the plans for the money weren't available Wednesday.
According to the CDC, the department has been awarded a total of $495 million, including the amount announced Wednesday, from five coronavirus response bills passed by Congress since March 2020.
Money from the latest award can be used for testing, contact tracing, vaccination, data collection and public education campaigns in the targeted communities, among other activities.
Already at its highest level since March 20, the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in the state rose Wednesday by 12, to 216.
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A day earlier, the number rose by 29 -- the largest single-day jump since early February.
Health Secretary Jose Romero said Tuesday that the increase could be linked to gatherings over the holiday weekend.
"What's interesting to me is that we didn't get a lot of forewarning," Romero said.
"Last year, you saw this surge in cases, and then you saw an increase in hospitalizations. Hospitalizations always lag behind -- they're a late indicator, and we didn't see that type of surge" in cases this time, he said.
He said it's possible that people getting infected now initially aren't as sick as those who got covid-19 earlier in the pandemic, so they don't get tested right away.
Or it could be the opposite.
"You're sick, and you're sick enough to be hospitalized, but you didn't have enough time to run off and get your test," he said.
State Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha agreed Wednesday that Memorial Day gatherings could be contributing to the increase in hospitalizations.
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After someone is infected, she noted, it typically takes about five days for the person to develop symptoms and then a few more days to become sick enough to require hospitalization.
"My concern is that we now have more people who are not vaccinated engaging in behaviors like not wearing masks and not social distancing that's increasing the risk for exposure, so they're getting infected and getting sick," she said.
The variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which tends to cause serious illness more often than the original coronavirus strain, may also be contributing to the increase, she said.
"I think that we may very well see hospitalizations increasing as the number of variants of concern increase in Arkansas," she said.
The increase in the state's case count on Wednesday was smaller by 30 than the one a day earlier and by 41 than the one the previous Wednesday.
After rising the previous five days, the average number of cases added to the state's tallies over a rolling seven-day period fell to 176.
The number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators rose Wednesday by three, to 40, its highest level since May 12.
The number of covid-19 patients in intensive care units in the state rose by six, to 93.
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Also on Wednesday, McNeill said 1,089 people as of Tuesday had received scratch-off lottery tickets or gift certificates for hunting and fishing licenses as a reward for receiving a vaccine dose.
That comprised 837 people who chose lottery tickets and 252 who received gift certificates.
Hutchinson announced late last month that Arkansans receiving vaccinations May 26 or later would be eligible for their choice of a $20 scratch-off lottery ticket or two gift certificates for hunting and fishing licenses worth a total of $21.
He said the state was using federal funds to purchase 50,000 of the lottery tickets and 50,000 pairs of gift certificates, and that it could buy more if the program is successful.
People have been able to use their vaccination cards to claim one of the rewards at the department's local health units since June 1.
Romero said Tuesday that the incentive program's start has been "slow."
"We haven't gotten as big of an uptick as I would have hoped," he said. "We'll see how we do this week."
The number of vaccine doses that providers around the state reported having administered, including second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, rose Wednesday by 6,968, according to the Health Department.
That was bigger by 1,151 than the increase the previous Wednesday, which followed a slowdown in vaccinations over the holiday weekend. Providers have three days to report the doses they administer.
The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose Wednesday to 5,734.
That was up from a recent low of 4,655 doses on average that were administered during the seven-day span ending Saturday but well below the state's peak of more than 23,000 doses a day in early April.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Wednesday by 2,715, to 1,215,294, representing about 40.3% of the population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 3,789, to 965,613, or about 32% of the population.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 45th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose and 49th, ahead of only Alabama and Mississippi, in the percentage who had been fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 51.8% of people had received at least one vaccine dose, and 42.5% were fully vaccinated.
CASES BY COUNTY
The cases added to the state's tallies on Wednesday included 128 that were confirmed and 73 classified as probable.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 342,927.
That comprised 267,650 confirmed cases and 75,277 probable ones.
Pulaski County had the most new cases, with 28.
Benton, Jefferson and Washington counties tied for the next-highest number, with 13 each.
They were followed by Faulkner County, which had 11.
The Health Department didn't report any new cases among prison and jail inmates.
The state's death toll rose by two, to 4,646, among confirmed cases and remained at 1,208 among probable cases.
Among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, the state's count of virus deaths rose by one, to 2,093.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with covid-19 grew by 24, to 16,495.
The number of the state's virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by one, to 1,683.