Already at its lowest level in more than a month, the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas fell Friday for the third day in a row.
The state's count of cases, however, rose by 2,159, the second daily increase in a row that was slightly larger than the one a week earlier.
Arkansas' death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 30, to 7,199.
"Hospitalizations are down," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a tweet.
"Still, we had more than 2,000 new cases today."
He referred to President Joe Biden's announcement a day earlier that businesses with 100 or more employees will be required to ensure their employees are vaccinated or tested weekly for the virus under a forthcoming rule from the U.S. Department of Labor.
"There's a debate about a vaccine mandate, but there is no debate a vaccine can help beat Covid-19," Hutchinson said. "I don't support a mandate for businesses, but I continue to encourage everyone to get vaccinated."
Appearing on MSNBC's Meet the Press Daily after attending an event at the Arkansas Fire Training Academy in Camden, the Republican governor said vaccination rates could be increased "on a voluntary basis just as quickly."
"We're moving that way nationally and at the state level," Hutchinson said. "I was with a bunch of firefighters today at a community event, and this is not well-received, and the consensus is that this could build a little bit more resistance versus actually building greater acceptance."
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., said the rise of the delta variant this summer fueled an uptick in vaccinations in Arkansas and other hard-hit areas.
When Arkansas' cases began surging in late June, the state ranked 49th among the states and the District of Columbia, ahead of only Alabama and Mississippi, in the percentage of its residents who were fully vaccinated.
As of Friday, it ranked 42nd, having overtaken Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, North Dakota, Idaho, West Virginia and Wyoming.
In the percentage of its residents who had received at least one vaccine dose, Arkansas moved up from 45th in late June to 37th as of Friday.
"It was pretty frightening to look at the map. Missouri and Arkansas just seemed to be turning completely dark red on those maps that record cases," Collins told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Friday.
Asked why Arkansas was hit so hard, Collins said, "I don't know all the answers to that. I do know that delta, which was basically taking over the viral population right there, right then, is incredibly contagious."
"And the combination of an extremely contagious virus and a population that had not fully embraced vaccination, was a setup for this to spread rapidly and to do a great deal of harm to people who ended up in the hospital or the ICU, and, sadly, lives were lost," he said.
"I think [in] all the places that got hit hard, it was a wake-up call for people who were still on the fence about vaccination.
"When they saw their neighbors getting sick this way, it was really an encouragement to not delay any longer. So we have seen an uptick in vaccinations since this delta surge became so prominent.
"I wish we could see that uptick go even more steeply upward because we are still at a place where there's an awful lot of people who have not yet gotten that first shot, and with delta out there looking for them, they are in jeopardy," he said.
The number of covid-19 patients in Arkansas' hospitals, which reached an all-time high of 1,459 on Aug. 16, fell Friday by 45, to 1,149.
The number who were on ventilators, however, rose by one, to 316, after dropping slightly the previous two days.
After rising a day earlier, the number of covid-19 patients who were in intensive care fell by 32, to 476, its lowest level since Aug. 7.
The number of intensive care beds statewide that were unoccupied rose Friday by eight, to 34.
People with covid-19 made up 43% of the patients in intensive care units statewide, down from 45% a day earlier.
Since Aug. 23, the number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19 has been below the peak of 1,371 it reached in January during the state's winter surge.
While down from the record levels they reached last month, the number of patients on ventilators and in intensive care on Friday remained above their January highs, which were 268 for the number on ventilators and 458 for the number in intensive care.
To expand hospital capacity, the state last month allocated more than $66 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to open and staff a total of 254 hospital beds, including 96 ICU beds, at hospitals in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Jonesboro, Pine Bluff, Searcy, Fort Smith and Van Buren for 60 days.
In Searcy, Unity Health-White County Medical Center this week opened the first seven of 43 hospital beds for covid-19 patients that will be funded with $10.4 million of the American Rescue Plan Act money, hospital spokeswoman Brooke Pryor said.
The beds that were opened comprised two of the nine ICU beds and five of the 34 regular hospital beds that will be supported with the funding.
Pryor said the hospital plans to open five more regular hospital beds Wednesday. The remaining ICU beds, along with 10 regular hospital beds, were expected to open on Sept. 20.
"This is all fluid, but that's our plan," Pryor said in a text message.
According to its Facebook page, the hospital had 17 covid-19 patients Friday, down from 19 Wednesday.
Out of the 254 beds included in the statewide expansion, just 18 others, all of them ICU beds, remained to be opened this month besides the ones in Searcy, according to the Health Department.
Twelve of those were at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock and six were at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff.
Houston Davis, the president of the University of Central Arkansas, in a message Friday described "positive trends" in covid-19 data for the Conway campus.
"We knew that if we could make it through the Labor Day holiday with minimal disruption due to COVID-19 that we would have a good indication of how we would operate during the remainder of the semester," Davis said in a statement addressed to students, and faculty and staff members.
"Though our state has felt significant negative impacts from the Delta variant, we are beginning to see positive trends in our data but must remain vigilant."
A weekly update published by the university Wednesday listed 24 positive tests out of 269 covid-19 tests. The update a week earlier listed 37 positives out of 265 tests. The data excluded tests taken by UCA students competing in athletics.
Davis said rooms used to isolate or quarantine because of covid-19 exposure were empty as of Thursday morning.
Data published by the university for Sept. 1 showed from 20 to 25 units in use for isolation or quarantine.
"Though we have had positive cases of COVID-19 on campus, consistent masking has helped prevent widespread quarantines and classroom transmission," Davis said.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville saw a decline in its active coronavirus infections over a two-day period that ended Thursday, according to university data.
Cases decreased by about 20%, falling to 111 from 138 two days previously.
The decrease reported on UA's website Friday reflected 33 new cases reported, as well as 60 infections now considered by the university to be "recoveries" because 10 days have passed since the positive test date.
During the fall semester, which began Aug. 23, active infections at UA have risen to as high as 199, according to university data.
The total of 111 active cases consisted of 106 student infections, two staff members infected and one faculty member with covid-19, as well as two graduate assistants.
ACTIVE CASES RISE
The statewide increase in cases Friday was larger by 30 than the one the previous Friday.
As a result, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period rose by about four, to 1,682.
That was still down from an average of 1,990 per day a week earlier, however.
The average has trended downward since it reached 2,351 per day the week ending Aug. 7.
With new cases outpacing recoveries and deaths, the number of cases that were considered active rose Friday by 28, to 19,742, which was still lower by more than 3,200 than the total a week earlier.
Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said the decline in new cases has been encouraging, although it will likely be next week before any increase associated with gatherings over Labor Day weekend will start showing up in the state's case numbers.
Razorbacks football games, such as the one in Fayetteville today against the University of Texas, are also a concern, she said.
"Even though it's outdoors, I worry about a lot of densely packed people who are yelling and cheering, and the risk for spread in that context," she said.
Dillaha said new cases among children and teenagers 18 and younger had recently declined slightly after peaking the week ending Aug. 30.
For all other age groups, new cases during the current infection wave peaked the week ending Aug. 10, she said.
She provided data indicating that age groups with the lowest vaccination rates were more likely to be infected.
Among children younger than 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination, the number of new cases per week peaked at 60.8 per 10,000 children in that age group, which was almost double the rate per 10,000 for that age group in January.
Cases among children and teenagers ages 12-18 peaked last month at 77.5 per 10,000 people in that age group, which was 14% higher than the peak rate among that group in January.
For all other age groups, the peak rates in August were lower than those in January.
The biggest drop was in residents 65 and older, among whom cases peaked in January at 57.7 per 10,000 residents and in August at 33.2 per 10,000 residents, a difference of 42%.
As of Thursday, 70.2% of Arkansans age 65 and older were fully vaccinated, according to Health Department data.
For Arkansans ages 12-18, the percentage was 33.8%.
In contrast to the cases, hospitalizations for all age groups except those 65 and older were higher in August than in January.
For children under age 12, weekly hospitalizations peaked at 2.4 per 100,000 in January and 4.6 per 100,000 in August.
Among those 12-18, they peaked at 4.3 per 100,000 in January and 6.1 per 100,000 in August.
The biggest jump among the age groups analyzed was among Arkansans ages 25-34.
Weekly hospitalizations among that group peaked at 21.4 per 100,000 in August, which was more than three times higher than the peak of 7.1 per 100,000 in January.
"That lends support to the notion that the delta variant makes people sicker," Dillaha said.
"It fits with what I'm hearing from the hospitalists, that people admitted to the hospital have higher acuity of illness."
Further illustrating the effect of the vaccines, weekly hospitalizations among Arkansas 65 and older peaked in August at 51.2 per 100,000, which was 19% lower than the peak of 63.4 per 100,000 in January.
According to rankings Friday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas had the country's 13th-highest number of new cases per capita in the seven-day span ending Thursday, up from the 14th highest the week ending Wednesday.
In new deaths per capita, Arkansas went from having the fourth-highest rate to being roughly tied with Georgia for the fifth-highest. Texas had the fourth-highest rate Friday, after Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma.
Within Arkansas, Pulaski County had the most new cases at 173, followed by Benton County with 142, and Washington County with 138.
The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 472,136.
Dillaha said 11.9% of the state's coronavirus tests were positive during the seven-day span ending Thursday, down slightly from the 12% that was initially reported for the week ending Wednesday and a high last month of 16.3% the week ending Aug. 4.
Hutchinson has said he wants to keep the percentage below 10%.
Dillaha said 23 of the deaths reported Friday happened within the past month. Of the others, she said three happened in December, two were in January, one was in May and one was in June.
She said she didn't know the reason for the delays in reporting those deaths.
The number of people who have ever been hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas rose by 102, to 24,902.
The number who have ever been on ventilators with covid-19 rose by 15, to 2,534.
Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said the number of people claiming winnings from lottery tickets distributed as rewards for receiving a vaccine dose dropped last week for the third week in a row.
But he said one person won $1,000 from one of the tickets, the second-highest amount after the $1 million won by a Texas man who got a vaccine dose in Arkansas while visiting relatives.
Hardin said 394 people cashed in tickets last week, down from 495 the previous week.
The total amount of winnings from the tickets, in amounts as low as $20, rose by $19,860, to $1,229,160.
One more $1 million ticket remained in circulation in the game, known as the $1 Million Spectacular, along with one $50,000 prize and one $10,000 prize.
Hutchinson announced in late May that Arkansans who receive shota on May 26 or after would be eligible for one of the $20 scratch-off tickets or a pair of gift certificates for hunting and fishing licenses worth a total of $21.
People can claim the rewards at vaccination clinics organized by the Health Department or the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care or by taking their vaccination cards to one of the department's local health units.
Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said 19,253 lottery tickets, and 8,001 Game and Fish Commission gift certificates had been given out as of Friday.
Meanwhile, reported vaccinations dropped Friday after rebounding a day earlier from a slowdown around Labor Day weekend.
At 8,189, the increase in vaccine doses that providers reported having administered, including second and third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, was smaller by more than 3,500 than the increase a week earlier.
The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 7,297, its lowest level since the week ending July 21.
According to the CDC, the number of Arkansans of all ages who had received at least one vaccine dose rose Friday by 5,141, to 1,639,387, representing about 54.3% of the population.
The number who had been fully vaccinated rose by 7,948, to 1,307,990 or about 43.3% of the population.
Nationally, 62.9% of people had received at least one vaccine dose, and 53.6% were fully vaccinated.
Information for this article was contributed by Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.