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State virus tally adds 570 cases; deaths go up 10

Hospitalizations fall again;dip seen in requests for shots by Andy Davis | March 6, 2021 at 7:47 a.m.
Barbara McDonald, an advanced practice registered nurse for UAMS, begins to screen patients Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 during a drive-thru covid-19 testing at the Lonoke Community Center. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases rose Friday by 570 -- the first daily increase in five days that was larger than the one a week earlier.

Despite that increase, the number of people hospitalized in the state, already at its lowest level since July, fell Friday for the eighth-straight day.

The death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Arkansas Department of Health, rose by 10, to 5,283.

Meanwhile, some pharmacists said they've seen a drop in demand for the coronavirus vaccine since the state expanded eligibility for the shots last week to Arkansans age 65-69.

At Kavanaugh Pharmacy in Little Rock, co-owner Anne Pace said an eligible customer as of Friday could make an appointment on the store's website for as soon as Tuesday to get the shot.

"I think we are seeing a little bit of a decrease just because we're kind of tapped out on the 65 to 70s," Pace said, at least among those who are able to find information on how to make an appointment.

"I think a lot of them have gotten their appointments in, or they've gotten them made."

The uptick in cases occurred a week after Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted almost all of the Health Department's directives related to covid-19.

The requirement to wear a mask in public places, however, is scheduled to stay in place until at least the end of the month, after which Hutchinson said it will be lifted if certain targets are met.

"It's possible that it is a reflection of changes in people's behavior as a result of the transition from the mandates to guidances," state Epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha said of the increase in cases Friday.

"We'll need to be watching that for the next few days. I'm especially interested this next week how the trend goes, and whether it starts trending up again."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people typically develop symptoms of covid-19 four to five days after being infected, although it can take up to about two weeks.

"It is noteworthy when the number of new COVID cases increases, but we have encouraging news as well," Hutchinson said in a statement Friday.

"The number of hospitalizations continues to fall. Vaccinations are up by 16,955; 51% of Arkansans older than 70 have received the 1st shot, and 29% are fully vaccinated."

A week earlier, on Feb. 26, the count of new virus cases rose by 516 in the state.

The larger increase on Friday occurred even though the number of tests of Arkansans that the Health Department reported were performed Thursday was smaller than the number it reported a week earlier.

The number of polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests fell by 22, to 6,421. The number of antigen tests, which are typically quicker but less sensitive, fell by 440 to 1,200.

From Thursday to Friday, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 fell by 13, to 359.

After dipping Thursday, the number of covid-19 patients on ventilators rose by one, to 86.

But the number of virus patients in intensive care units as of 2 p.m. fell by 10, to 153.

DEMAND FALLS

In January, when Hutchinson expanded eligibility for the vaccine to school and child care employees and Arkansans age 70 and older, thousands of names piled up on pharmacy waiting lists.

Kavanaugh Pharmacy initially opened up appointment slots a week at a time. The first time it did that, Pace said, the slots filled up within 30 minutes.

After gradually lessening, demand went up again after Hutchinson on Feb. 23 expanded eligibility to Arkansans age 65-69.

"The governor hadn't even stopped talking, and people were already calling, asking how they [could get] an appointment," Pace said.

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

That expansion was not as large as the previous one, however, and occurred as the state's weekly supply of vaccine from the federal government has been steadily increasing each week.

At her pharmacy, the expansion of the eligibility list on Tuesday to include workers in poultry plants and other food-processing sites didn't cause much of an increase in appointments, Pace said, although the pharmacy has been fielding questions from people who work at restaurants, grocery stores and other food-related businesses asking if they qualify.

According to the Health Department, the food-processing category includes only people who work in the grain and oilseed milling and animal slaughtering and processing industries.

Restaurant and grocery workers are not yet eligible for the shots.

Pace said the pharmacy also had been getting calls from attorneys seeking vaccinations since the state Supreme Court on Thursday issued an opinion declaring that specific people affiliated with Arkansas' court system -- such as judges, court personnel and jurors -- are now eligible for the shots.

But she said the pharmacy was following directives from the Health Department and governor, who say court personnel are not yet eligible.

To reach people who might be less savvy about finding out where they can get the vaccine, she said the pharmacy is exploring holding clinics at churches and other places.

She said the pharmacy gave shots to more than 500 people Sunday at Saint Mark Baptist Church in Little Rock.

In preparation for a vaccination event today in Texarkana, College Hill Drug owner Michael Butler said volunteers called 1,500 people who had signed up on a waiting list, only to find that most of them already had gotten shots.

Many had gone across the state line to Texas.

"It was fairly dismal on the numbers," Butler said.

To bolster turnout, he said he sought help from hospitals, a University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences clinic and the Miller County office of emergency management.

Although some people have made appointments, walk-ins will be allowed at the clinic, which will be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Arkansas High School gym.

Even in Hot Springs Village, Butler said he's had to take steps to ensure a good turnout at the clinics another one of his pharmacies, Village Healthmart No. 1, holds at a church.

"It's not as easy as it was when we first rolled it out 2½ months ago," Butler said. "You almost had to barricade the doors because they were going to come running in."

Dillaha said she's also heard some reports of declining demand.

"We will have to adjust our strategy accordingly," she said.

"We want the vaccine to be used as soon as possible, so it may necessitate a change in priority groups."

At the same time, she said the state wants to ensure that elderly Arkansans who face barriers such as a lack of computer skills or access to the internet aren't left behind as the state expands eligibility for the shots to larger numbers of people.

That's one reason the Health Department decided to begin using its local health units to hold vaccination clinics around the state, she said.

The clinics will start next week, with the vaccinations administered to those eligible on a first-come, first-served basis.

In future weeks, the department is planning to offer a toll-free number people can use to make appointments.

Dillaha said the department's office of health equity has been working with Black fraternities and sororities to contact senior citizens to help them book appointments with providers.

The area agencies on aging also are helping people make appointments, she said.

At a vaccination event today in Jonesboro, at Arkansas State University's First National Bank Arena, providers will have enough doses to vaccinate 3,500 people.

But Shane Speights, dean of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at ASU, said he doesn't expect that many people to show up.

Instead, he said the college will use its mobile medical unit to administer some of the doses around northeast Arkansas over the next few weeks.

"I know there are people in communities in northeast Arkansas that are not going to be able to make it to the event tomorrow, and we have plans to go out and take them vaccine," Speights said.

Appointments are preferred but not required at the event, which will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

DOSES REPORTED

According to the Health Department, providers participating in the effort coordinated by the state had received 1,064,920 doses of vaccine as of Friday morning, up by 65,680 from a day earlier.

The doses the providers reported having administered, including booster shots, rose by 16,955, to 653,245.

In addition, Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network pharmacies had been allotted 135,550 doses through federal programs, up 16,380 from the total as of a day earlier.

The doses those providers reported having administered rose by 2,547, to 53,454.

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.

According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Friday by 12,026, to 464,641, representing 15.4% of the state's population.

The number of residents who had received two doses rose by 7,411, to 257,367, or 8.5% of the state's population.

Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas ranked 45th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose and 32nd in the percentage who had received two doses.

Nationally, 16.7% of people had received at least one vaccine dose, and 11.2% had received two doses.

ACTIVE CASES RISE

The cases added to state tallies on Friday included 422 that were confirmed through PCR tests.

The other 148 were "probable" cases, which include those identified through antigen tests.

The cumulative count of cases rose to 324,326.

That comprised 255,365 confirmed cases and 68,961 probable ones.

The number of cases that were considered active rose by 35, to 4,296, as 525 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.

Pulaski County had the largest number of new cases, 88; followed by Washington County, which had 55; Sebastian County, which had 44; Benton County, which had 43; and Garland County, which had 33.

Among prison and jail inmates, the Health Department's count of cases rose by two.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said the prison system had one new case, at the McPherson Unit near Newport.

That case was the only one at the prison that was active as of Friday, she said.

The state death toll rose by eight, to 4,291, among confirmed cases and by two, to 992, among probable cases.

Among nursing home and assisted-living facility residents, the count of virus deaths grew by four, to 1,994.

The number of people who have ever been hospitalized in the state with the virus grew by 27, to 14,903.

The number of virus patients who have ever been on a ventilator rose by five, to 1,530.

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