Arkansas reported no new deaths from the coronavirus for the first time in more than a month on Tuesday even as the reported number of people hospitalized with the virus rose for the second day in a row.
Meanwhile, health care providers began administering second booster shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to eligible Arkansans, including those age 50 and older, soon after the additional doses were authorized by federal regulators.
"People are still concerned about getting covid," Anne Pace, co-owner of Kavanaugh Pharmacy in Little Rock, said.
"They want to go back to normal, but they also want to do their best to protect themselves."
Tuesday was the first day since Feb. 21, when state offices were closed for George Washington's Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day, that the state didn't report any new deaths from covid-19.
The death toll rose by just one on Sunday and one on Monday, bringing it to 11,211.
"It's very encouraging," Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Health Department's chief medical officer, said.
"We've had well over 11,000 deaths in Arkansas due to covid, and it's just really such a pleasure to report zero deaths today."
After rising by four on Monday, the Health Department's tally of people currently hospitalized with covid-19 rose Tuesday by three, to 122.
The state's count of cases rose by 144, an increase that was smaller by 463 than the one the previous Tuesday.
Many of the cases added a week ago, however, were from a backlog of weeks-old faxed-in reports from providers that built up during a surge of infections from the omicron variant.
State officials said the last of the cases from the backlog was entered into the Health Department's system early last week.
Already at its lowest level since May 20, 2020, the number of cases in the state that were considered active, representing people who tested positive and are still potentially infectious, fell Tuesday by 56, to 1,238.
After falling the previous five days, reaching its lowest level since April, the number of the state's virus patients who were on ventilators remained Tuesday at 26.
Already at its lowest level since at least May 2020, the number who were in intensive care fell by one, to 37.
At its hospitals in Little Rock and Springdale, Arkansas Children's had two covid-19 patients on Tuesday, down from four a day earlier, spokeswoman Hilary DeMillo said.
She said none of the patients on Tuesday were on ventilators or in intensive care.
At Kavanaugh Pharmacy, Pace said the phones started "ringing off the hook" after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the additional Pfizer and Moderna boosters for people who received their first booster dose at least four months ago and are age 50 or older or have compromised immune systems.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said people age 18 and older who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for their initial shot and booster can get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine as a second booster four months after their first booster.
Pace said she'd been stocking up on the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines in preparation for the announcements.
"There will not be a supply issue," Pace said.
"There will possibly be a manpower issue in getting everyone the vaccine as quickly as they want to get it."
One reason for the interest, she said, was an apparent uptick in new infections, possibly as a result of the more-infectious omicron subvariant known as BA.2.
She said she'd seen an increase in recent days in people testing positive for covid-19 as well as in prescriptions for antiviral drugs in response to covid-19 diagnoses.
Also, she said, "People are traveling and wanting to go out of the country, go in different places, and I think especially people over 50, elderly people, will feel better about it if they have had a second booster shot."
In a weekly report, the Health Department said the number of cases in the state found to have been caused by BA.2 more than tripled last week, from 10 to 34.
According to CDC estimates updated Tuesday, the subvariant caused 54.9% of cases nationwide last week, up from 39% the previous week.
John Vinson, CEO of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said that while pharmacists have heard from people eager to get a second booster dose, he doesn't think uptake will be "as high as we would like."
He said he'd still like to see more people getting their first booster dose.
According to the CDC, about 21% of Arkansans were fully vaccinated and had received a booster as of Tuesday.
Among those age 65 and older, the percentage was about 49%.
"We're unfortunately continuing to see hospitalizations and deaths because I don't think we have enough patients vaccinated or boosted," Vinson said.
He said he's also concerned about the end of the federal program that has reimbursed providers for vaccinating the uninsured.
Due to a lack of funding from Congress, the Covid-19 Uninsured Program stopped accepting claims for covid-19 treatment and testing last week.
It's set to stop accepting claims for vaccinations on Wednesday. Providers who administer vaccines must still offer them at no charge to the patient, however, and can't refuse a patient due to a lack of health coverage.
Vinson said he hasn't heard of pharmacies that have stopped carrying the covid-19 vaccines as a result of the change, but he has heard of some that are no longer holding community vaccination events targeting the uninsured population.
"I think there will be less of those because there aren't as many volunteers now, and there's no way to recover your costs if you have to pay staff to be there on a Saturday or Sunday," Vinson said.
Dillaha said the Health Department, which receives other federal funding for vaccinations, will continue to offer the vaccines at its local health units around the state.
"That is our biggest concern, is that [the end of the Covid-19 Uninsured Program] could promote disparities among people who have decreased access to vaccines -- people with low income or people who are uninsured," she said.
The state's cumulative count of cases since March 2020 rose Tuesday to 832,718.
The Health Department's tally of vaccine doses that had been administered rose by 900, which was smaller by 474 than the daily increase a week earlier.
Booster shots made up 32% of the most recent increase.
The count of first doses rose by 339, which was down by more than 100 from the increase in first doses a week earlier.
Already at its lowest level since the Health Department started regularly releasing vaccination numbers in January 2021, the average number of total doses administered over a rolling seven-day period fell Tuesday to 915.
The average for first doses, also already at a record low, fell to 319.
According to the CDC, 66.2% of Arkansans had received at least one dose as of Tuesday, and 53.9% were fully vaccinated.
Of those who had been fully vaccinated, 38.6% had received a booster dose.
Among the states and District of Columbia, Arkansas ranked 37th in the percentage of its residents who had received at least one dose and 46th, ahead of Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Wyoming and Alabama, in the percentage who were fully vaccinated.
Nationally, 76.9% of people had received at least one dose, and 65.5% were fully vaccinated.
Of the fully vaccinated population nationally, 44.8% had received a booster dose.