The number of covid-19 hospitalizations in Northwest Arkansas and across the state continued to decline this week.
Doctors and scientists don't fully understand the life cycle of a covid-19 surge, especially the delta variant, said Dr. Marti Sharkey, Fayetteville public health officer.
In the United Kingdom, India and locally, the delta variant seemed to enter a community, infect those it could within six to eight weeks, then dissipate, she said.
It's not clear whether cases begin to decline because people start masking up, social distancing, washing their hands and increasing the vaccine rate in response to the surge -- or if it's just what the virus does, Sharkey said.
"We are very much in the infancy of what we are learning," she said.
Seventy patients were hospitalized with the virus in the region on Wednesday, down from 78 last week and 82 the week before, according to Martine Pollard, a spokeswoman for Mercy who released a joint statement with the region's largest health care providers. The all-time high was 173 on Aug. 11.
The number of patients in intensive care units was up from 91 last week to 106 this week, Pollard said. However, the number of patients on ventilators was down, from 51 last week to 45 this week, she said. The numbers represent both patients with covid-19 and other medical needs.
River Valley hospitals saw an even sharper decline in patients. Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith had 21 covid-19 patients on Friday, including eight patients in ICU, according to spokeswoman Mardi Taylor. Last week the hospital had 40 covid-19 patients, including 17 in ICU.
Baptist Health in Fort Smith had 34 covid-19 patients on Friday, including 18 in covid critical-care units, and the health care system's Van Buren hospital had five covid-19 patients, according to spokeswoman Alicia Agent. In comparison, the Fort Smith hospital had 42 covid-19 patients last week, with 21 in critical care units and nine on ventilators. The hospital in Van Buren had three patients with covid-19 last week.
Statewide, 563 patients were hospitalized with covid-19 on Friday, down from 703 last week, according to Danyelle McNeill, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Health. There were 267 patients in ICU and 175 on ventilators in the state this week, compared to 321 in ICU and 190 on ventilators last week, she said.
While the number of cases and hospitalizations in Northwest Arkansas is heading in the right direction, the region is still an area of high transmissibility according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition. It is still recommended that people continue masking in crowded or indoor environments, washing their hands, social distancing and getting vaccinated, Sharkey said.
Washington County only had 51 new cases of covid-19 Friday, compared to 102 a week ago, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Sebastian County also saw a decrease in new cases from 48 last week to 36 cases this week.
Benton County saw a slight increase from 82 new cases last Friday to 83 this Friday, and Crawford County saw a slight increase from 24 to 27 cases.
It's unclear whether cases will increase again when it gets cold outside and people start to spend more time indoors, or whether the change in season will open the door for a new variant to move in, Sharkey said.
Doctors in the United States are watching other populations to see what might happen next, Sharkey said. For example, the United Kingdom experienced a delta surge ahead of the United States and is heading into the colder part of the year. The country's numbers are ticking up, but it's not another surge and doesn't seem to be a new variant, she said.
It will be especially important for people to get their flu vaccines this year because there wasn't much of a flu season last year, so the herd immunity for the flu is very low, Sharkey said. Health care workers are already overburdened caring for covid-19 patients and adding flu patients will only make things worse, she said.
"We are overdue for a bad flu season," she said.
In Benton and Washington counties, more than 60% of the population has received one or both doses of the covid-19 vaccine, according to the department of health. Fifty-two percent of the population in Crawford County and 54% of the population in Sebastian County is partially or fully vaccinated.
Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an emergency use authorization for a third dose of Pfizer vaccine for certain populations on Sept. 22, 6,571 people -- or 2.8% of the population -- in Benton County has had a booster dose, according to the department of health. In Washington County, 2.9% of the population, or 5,818 people have received a third dose.
Numbers are slightly lower in Sebastian County, where 2.3% of the population or 2,470 people have received a third dose, and in Crawford County where 1.9% of the population or 633 people have received a third dose.
Sharkey said she highly recommends a third dose for people who are eligible, especially those who are in high-risk categories or are elderly. Unfortunately, the Pfizer vaccine is showing waning immunity over time and respiratory virus season is starting, she said.
"I think it is very important for your personal health and decreasing transmission, even if you were to get a breakthrough illness and a mild one, we need these numbers to keep going down," Sharkey said.
As of Friday, Benton, Washington, Crawford and Sebastian counties have seen 20 new deaths related to covid-19 since last week, for a total of 1,540 since the pandemic began, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
Baptist Health vaccine clinic offering covid-19 boosters
Baptist Health is offering covid-19 vaccine booster doses to eligible patients twice a week at Baptist Health Medical Plaza in Fort Smith.
Patients who meet criteria can use Baptist Health’s MyChart app and website to schedule an appointment to receive their third dose of the Pfizer covid-19 vaccine. Appointments are available from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Thursday and Friday on the second floor of the medical plaza on Dodson Avenue.
More information is available at BaptistHealthCovidVaccine.com.