Arkansas' count of coronavirus cases Tuesday continued to grow but at a slower pace compared with a few days earlier, which officials said was likely at least partly because of the reduction in testing over the Fourth of July weekend.
The number of cases grew by 259, the first time the daily increase dropped below 300 since June 16.
But the number of Arkansans who were hospitalized with covid-19 increased by 32 -- the highest one-day increase so far.
"That's a lagging indicator," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said, relating what he said state Health Secretary Nate Smith told him about the increase in hospitalized patients.
"If you remember the spike in cases we had a week ago, now we're seeing some of the results of that through our increased hospitalizations."
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, increased by nine, to 301, while the total number of cases rose to 24,512.
The number of patients hospitalized with covid-19, which has been at record levels since Saturday, grew to 369.
Eighty-three of the patients were on ventilators, up from 81 a day earlier.
Tuesday was the second day in a row in which the number of cases added to the state's total was lower than the number added the day before.
The number of cases in the state that were considered active, meaning the person had tested positive and had not yet recovered, fell for the second-straight day, from 6,127 on Monday to 5,486 on Tuesday.
That reflected the nine deaths and 891 people who were newly classified as having recovered.
"With two days of decreasing new cases, I should be happier than I am," Smith said.
"My joy of our lower number of cases is modified due to the decreased testing that we saw over the weekend, and this is just a function of fewer people collecting specimens over the holiday weekend."
Laboratories performed 3,615 tests on specimens from Arkansans on Sunday and 3,366 on Monday.
By comparison, more than 6,000 tests were performed, on average, each day last month. Most of the tests are performed by commercial laboratories, although the Health Department has been conducting an increasing number at its laboratory in Little Rock.
Hutchinson on Monday set a goal of testing 200,000 Arkansans this month, an average of more than 6,400 a day.
He noted Tuesday that even 3,000 tests per day "is still a lot of tests compared to what we were doing even two months ago."
The governor also pointed to the percentage of tests performed Monday that were positive -- 5.2%, below the 10% that Hutchinson frequently says he wants to keep the percentage below -- as a good sign.
"We'll see tomorrow, and we'll see the next day, when our testing numbers go up again" whether the recent drop in new cases was solely because of less testing, Hutchinson said.Gallery: Governor Press Conference
Smith continued to express concern about the rise in cases in Pulaski County.
Pointing to a chart showing the growth in cases in the counties with the highest case totals, he noted that the growth in Washington and Benton counties, which have the highest numbers, appears to have leveled off.
The trajectory of Pulaski County's cases, on the other hand is "still going up," Smith said.
"It's not flattening out, so that's where I'm concerned about what's going on here in Pulaski County," he said.
He called it a "general increase in transmission," rather that a cluster associated with a particular work site or other location, that highlights the need to take precautions such as staying at least 6 feet from other people in public and wearing a mask when that's not possible.
Although he called the increase in hospitalizations "significant," Hutchinson said the number remains manageable.
"I don't want to diminish the stress that is on the hospital workers," he said. "That is where the challenge is, that's a lot of patients that they're having to work with. It's stress involved with this, there are lifesaving decisions, so not minimizing the stress on the system and on the people, but there is the capacity to handle what we have, and we look at that every day."
Almost 2,500 of the state's 8,926 hospital beds were empty Tuesday, including 163 of its 982 intensive care unit beds, Health Department spokesman Danyelle McNeill said. Coronavirus patients made up 158 of the patients who were in intensive care.
Of the state's 964 ventilators, 620 were not in use, she said.
In Washington and Benton counties, the number of patients in hospital coronavirus units increased by six, to 113, the hospitals reported.
Meanwhile, the number of patients hospitalized in the two counties for reasons other than covid-19 increased by 71, to 584.
"The [Northwest Arkansas] medical community continues to work closely together to balance both COVID-19 and Non-COVID-19 patients in order to avoid capacity challenges," Martine Pollard, executive director of communications and public relations for Mercy Health System in Northwest Arkansas, said in an email.
"Currently there are sufficient beds, professional staff and supplies to manage the volume of our patients. Great credit is given to the workforce for their handling of these challenges."
At the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center, 46 of the hospital's 52 intensive care unit beds were full, but only five were occupied by coronavirus patients, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.
She said the hospital has additional space it can convert for intensive care if the need arises.
In all, the hospital can handle 241 coronavirus patients, she said. Including those not in intensive care, it had 21 coronavirus patients Tuesday, she said.
"We're in good shape," she said.
Commerce Department Secretary Mike Preston said that, after peaking at 122,522 on May 9, the number of Arkansans filing continued claims for unemployment benefits had dropped to 97,966 as of Tuesday.
Meanwhile, more than 43,000 Arkansans have been approved for benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for the self-employed and for independent contractors.
About $330 million has been disbursed to Arkansans under that program, he said.
He said the state has also seen an uptick in fraudulent claims for benefits in what he described as "part of a nationwide fraud scheme that continues to grow."
"They're using information that was fraudulently obtained in a breach that might have happened going back as far as 20 years ago," Preston said. "So this could be related to a retail breach that happened or just other areas where people have had their personal information stolen."
He said the Commerce Department's Division of Workforce Services has identified discrepancies with 14,000 claims filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and 6,000 claims for traditional unemployment benefits.
"That doesn't mean they're all fraudulent," he said. "That means that our team has just flagged them for potential activity.
"It might be something as simple as just an error in bank account information, but it was enough that it set off a red flag for our team."
Anyone who thinks a claim may have been fraudulently filed under their names or whose accounts were frozen because of a discrepancy or suspicious activity should contact the Workforce Services Division, he said.
The cases added to the state's total Tuesday included 57 in Pulaski County, 26 in Benton County and 14 in Washington County.
The Health Department said 85 cases had been linked to the Miller County jail in Texarkana, but the department didn't have a breakdown of how many cases were among inmates and how many were among the staff.
The Texarkana Gazette reported Tuesday that five of the positive test results were staff members.
Statewide, the Health Department's count of cases among prison or jail inmates rose Tuesday by 23, an increase that could reflect cases that were added to the state's overall total earlier being newly categorized in a department database as prison or jail cases.
Among other Arkansans, the department's count of cases rose by 236.
McNeill said 41 cases have been linked to the First Pentecostal Church in North Little Rock, up from 39 a week earlier.
In downtown Little Rock on Monday, the possible exposure to the coronavirus of an employee at the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery Claims Center caused the center to temporarily close.
"An employee was exposed and got tested," Director Bishop Woosley said Tuesday in a written statement.
"Out of an abundance of caution we closed the center until test results were available."
He said he hopes to know the test results in the next few days, but test result times vary.
He said he's unsure how long the claims center will be closed.
"Hopefully a matter of days," Woosley said.
The virus deaths added to the Health Department's count Tuesday included the first one in Stone County.
The count of deaths increased by two, to seven, in Sebastian County and by two, to five in Yell County.
The deaths also included the 62nd in Pulaski County, the 34th in Washington County, the 21st in Benton County and the second in Lafayette County.
The deaths increased by five, to 73, among Arkansans age 45-64 and by four among people 65 and older.
The state Department of Corrections reported that an inmate from the East Arkansas Regional Unit at Brickeys died Saturday at a North Little Rock hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for symptoms related to the virus, making him the second inmate from the prison to die from covid-19.
The state's other recent deaths included residents of Alexander, Mountain View and Helena-West Helena.
Mack Giles, 76, of Alexander died Monday from covid-19 in the intensive-care unit at Baptist Health-Little Rock, according a Pulaski County coroner's report.
He was admitted to the hospital on May 31 with diarrhea and fever. He tested positive for covid-19 on June 2.
His son, Mack Giles Jr., said about a month ago his dad became very lethargic and just didn't feel well.
"It wasn't like my father at all," Giles Jr. said. "He's high energy. He was in better shape than I am. He just kept getting sicker and sicker. Then he wouldn't eat. I told him, 'Come on. We're going to take you to the doctor.'"
About three days later, Giles Jr. said they were notified that his dad had covid-19.
"I told him, 'we got to go back to the hospital,'" he said. "He never came home after that."
His father -- who had 10 children -- died alone, Giles Jr. said.
"They wouldn't allow anybody up there. They need to change that," Giles Jr. said. "I got to talk to him a couple of times before they put him on a ventilator, but that was it. I don't know if he knew we were thinking about him or not when he passed."
Giles Jr. said he doesn't know how his father contracted the virus.
"There ain't no telling how long he had it," he said. "He's always been up at 4:30 every morning and going to the store to get his coffee. But when he started getting sick, he'd still be in the bed when I'd get up at 6:30."
Giles Sr. was born in Prescott, then moved to Hot Springs where he graduated from high school. At 18, he struck out to find his fortune in California. He made it as far as Gary, Ind., before finding a job. He retired about three years ago and moved back to Arkansas after 42 years at U.S. Steel, where he was head electrician. He also owned an electrician business for 30 years.
"He cracked jokes and loved to play with his grandkids," Giles Jr. said. "He was a really giving guy. He took care of all the kids in the neighborhood. He was a great father. He came to every football game and track meet I had, even if he had to work double shifts just to make it there."
His father loved to fish, Giles Jr. said.
"He did a whole lot of fishing. Crappie. He would freeze them up and eat them," Giles Jr. said. "He was still trying to find a good fishing hole here before he got sick."
Jimmy Lawrence, 55, of Mountain View, died Sunday from covid-19 in the intensive care unit at Baptist Health-Little Rock, according a Pulaski County coroner's report.
Lawrence was admitted to the hospital on June 27 with seizures and an altered mental state. He tested positive for covid-19.
No other previous health issues were noted on the coroner's report.
Charlotte Hickey, 45, of Helena-West Helena died July 2 from covid-19 in the intensive care unit at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, according to a Pulaski County coroner's report.
Hickey had a history of diabetes and hypertension. She was admitted to the hospital on May 23 with respiratory distress and being covid-19 positive.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline and Eric Besson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.