By Mary Hennigan and Rachell Sanchez-Smith
With 757 deaths, September was the fourth deadliest month of the pandemic in Arkansas even though active COVID-19 cases fell by more than half from August, according to an ArkansasCovid.com analysis of state health data.
For the last year and a half, the pandemic has followed a wave pattern, represented by spikes and falls of cases in the state. September began to mark the end of one of these waves as active cases, hospitalizations and total cases declined significantly. As of Sept. 30, there were 10,385 active cases, a 120% decline from the 22,814 reported on Sept. 1.
The death rate remained alarmingly high despite the general decline in active and total cases. The 757 COVID-19 deaths reported in September is near the 793 deaths reported in August. For perspective, that death rate for each of these months is more than double the annual murder rate in Arkansas, some 310 people killed in 2020.
Health officials, hospital administrators and others following the COVID-19 trends say they don’t have a clear explanation for the decline in cases. The latest forecast by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, issued Sept. 13, projected a further decrease into October.
At St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, nearly 98% of the deaths involved unvaccinated patients, Mitchell Nail, the hospital’s media relations manager said. Northeast Arkansas hospitals represented the highest hospitalization rate in the state at 16.7 COVID-19 patients per 100 beds, according to an ArkansasCovid.com analysis of ADH data on Sept. 25. Over 90% of COVID-19-related hospitalizations statewide were unvaccinated, according to ADH data.
Despite the continued gathering in school settings, the overall state case decline is mirrored in the school data as well. Public schools reported 4,791 active cases Sept. 2, but by Sept. 30, that number fell by 57% to 2,060 cases. This trend is at odds with the increased number of COVID-19 cases seen in the number of school-aged children. Children aged 10 and under had a 19% increase in cases in September, and ages 11-17 increased by 16%, according to an Arkansascovid.com analysis.
After a spike in August, the pace of vaccination slowed in Arkansas in September. There were 212,281 vaccine shots delivered in September, a 40% decline from the 351,556 shots in August.
Despite that slowdown, Arkansas overall improved its total vaccination rate, with 46% of the entire population fully vaccinated, up from 41% in late August, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arkansas now ranks 41st in the country for vaccinations; Vermont is the highest at 70%, West Virginia is the lowest at 40%.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the Arkansas Department of Health chief medical officer, cited reluctance of the younger generation, who has not seen the direct impact of vaccines, unlike the older generation. When vaccine rates were at their highest at the start of the year, Dr. Dillaha said it was mostly those who, as she called it, were “the early adopters,” including the older Arkansans.
Gov. Hutchinson, First Lady Susan Hutchinson, and Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero received their Pfizer Booster shot during the weekly COVID-19 press conference.
In a screenshot from the Sept. 28 press conference, Gov. Hutchinson receives his COVID-19 booster shot. First Lady Susan Hutchinson and Secretary of Health Jose Romero wear masks as they wait for their vaccinations. Photo: Office of Asa Hutchinson.
The symbolic vaccination represented the booster’s shots availability in Arkansas for people 65 years-plus, those with underlying medical conditions ages 18-plus, and those who work and live in high exposure environments, such as educators and law enforcement workers.
“People who had the Pfizer vaccine and meet this criteria should get a booster shot six months after their second dose,” Gov. Hutchinson said. Nearly a third of administered vaccine doses on Sept. 28 were booster shots, Gov. Hutchinson said Tuesday.
Booster shots protect against more transmissible variants circulating in Arkansas that have prompted surges during the summer months. The variants such as the delta variant causes more than twice as many infections as the original COVID-19 strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In contrast, the new variants in the state like the mu and lambda variants do not appear “to be an uptick in those cases like we’ve seen before in the alpha variant or the delta variant,” Dr. Romero said.