The number of people hospitalized with covid-19 in Arkansas fell Tuesday to its lowest level since 2020 even as the state's active case total, representing people who tested positive and are potentially still infectious, rose for the second time in four days.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Arkansas Department of Health, rose by 13, to 11,127.
State Epidemiologist Mike Cima said, however, that only two of 13 deaths happened within the past month.
Of the others, 10 occurred in January and one was from early February.
Dropping for the 18th day in a row, the number hospitalized with covid-19 fell by 22, to 139, its lowest level since June 4, 2020.
It was the first time this year that the number had dropped under the low of 141 that it reached last year, on April 8.
"That's really, really good news," Cima said of the decline.
With more people using at-home tests, the results of which aren't required to be reported to the Health Department, the hospitalization numbers are "an incredibly important metric to us right now" to track the spread of the virus, Cima said.
"I think they're just reflecting a low level of disease in the community," he said.
Although the state's total count of cases rose Tuesday by 607, Cima said 54% of the increase was from tests that were performed in January or February.
The results were recently added to a state database as the Health Department works through a backlog of faxed-in reports that built up during a surge of infections from omicron variant.
Cima said more than 40,000 test results, including negative results, that were faxed in by providers in January and February had not been entered into the database as of earlier this month.
The faxed-in reports were primarily from smaller, rural clinics and pharmacies that haven't converted to electronic reporting, he said.
When they became aware of the extent of the backlog, he said Health Department officials increased the number of people assigned to enter the reports.
He said the department has prioritized entering the positive results and is on track to have all of those entered by the end of the day Friday.
ACTIVE CASES RISE
Because they represent infections of people who have already recovered, the old cases don't affect the state's active case total.
After reaching a 22-month low on Monday, however, the active-case total rose Tuesday by 74, to 1,499.
It was just second time the total had risen since it peaked at an all-time high of 102,576 on Jan. 22.
The other was on Saturday, when it rose by 13.
The total as of Tuesday, however, remained below the lowest point it reached last year, which was 1,594 on June 7.
"When we're at such low levels, I expect these day-to-day fluctuations up and down," Cima said.
While any sustained increase would warrant further investigation, the most recent ones "don't really rise to the level of concern yet," he said.
"So far, as it stands right now, the trends are looking pretty good," Cima said.
For the purpose of its coronavirus metrics, the Health Department considers a case to be active for 10 days after the person began having symptoms.
If the person didn't have symptoms, the case is considered to be active for 10 days after the person was tested.
The largest increase in active cases on Tuesday was in Crittenden County, where the total rose from 10 as of Monday to 68.
The total rose by 18, to 34, in Mississippi County and by 17, to 73, in Craighead County.
No other county had an increase in active cases on Tuesday of more than 10.
After not changing on Monday, the number of covid-19 patients who were on ventilators statewide fell Tuesday by four, to 36, its lowest level since June 7.
The number who were in intensive care, which rose by one on Monday, fell Tuesday by six, to 55, the smallest number since April 19.
In their latest forecast report, based on data through March 13, researchers with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health predicted that the state's daily average of new covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths will remain flat through April 12.
But they said it's likely the state will face another surge at some point, as people's immunity from vaccination and infection wanes.
"Everyone in Arkansas is hoping and to some extent acting like the pandemic is over," the researchers wrote.
"Unfortunately, it is not."
They called for a renewed effort to vaccinate more people, especially nursing home residents and other elderly people, and to educate the public about the costs of covid-19 and ways of preventing its transmission.
Schools, day care centers and hospitals should be ready to respond the next surge, they said.
"Arkansans do not need to be at red alert all the time," the researchers wrote.
"But, we must be prepared to go back on alert status when circumstances warrant."
Noting the state's death toll over the past two years, they said Arkansans "should resolve to not add another five to six thousand COVID-19 deaths in the coming year."
Through April 12, they predicted the state would average about 472 new cases, 37 hospitalizations and 18 deaths per day from the virus.
The state's cumulative count of cases since March 2020 rose Tuesday to 831,698.
The Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 1,374, which was smaller by 141 than the daily increase a week earlier.
Booster shots made up about 35% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 447, which was down by 31 from the increase in first doses a week earlier.
The average number of total doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period fell to 1,165, which was down from an average of 1,186 a day a week earlier.
The average for first doses fell to 411.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of Arkansans who had received at least one dose remained Tuesday at 66.1%, and the percentage who had been fully vaccinated remained at 53.9%.
The percentage of those fully vaccinated who had received a booster dose remained at 38.4%.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas continued to rank 37th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose.
In the percentage who were fully vaccinated, it remained roughly tied with Tennessee for 45th, ahead of Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Wyoming and Alabama.
Nationally, 76.8% of people had received at least one dose, and 65.4% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 44.6% had received a booster dose.