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story.lead_photo.caption In his briefing Wednesday at the Red Wolf Convention Center in Jonesboro, Gov. Asa Hutchinson refers to a graphic showing the number of coronavirus cases in Arkansas. More photos at arkansasonline.com/528briefing/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Arkansas' official count of coronavirus cases rose by 97 on Wednesday -- the smallest increase in a week and down from the 151 cases that were added a day earlier.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson called the drop in new cases "good news." He added that 4,033 tests had been completed on Tuesday -- the state's second-highest one-day total.

Of those results, 76, or 1.9%, were positive.

"That speaks well of our radar, our testing that is greatly expanding in Arkansas," Hutchinson said.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Cases are added to the state's total as information from laboratory reports is entered into a database -- which sometimes doesn't happen until days after the test is performed.

The official case total rose to 6,277 as of Wednesday morning, while the number of virus deaths in the state Department of Health's count rose by one, to 120, reflecting a death in Washington County.

A report from the Pulaski County coroner's office indicated a ninth inmate at the Cummins Unit in Lincoln County also died of the virus.

Jim Wilson, 60, died Tuesday evening at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center, where he had been since May 15 after being transferred from the prison, according to the report.

He had a history of congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and diabetes. Information about his sentence wasn't available Wednesday.

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A resident of a Maumelle nursing home, where at least eight other residents died of the virus earlier, was also among the state's recent covid-19 deaths.

The number of patients hospitalized with the virus rose by one to 108, while the number on ventilators rose by four, to 22.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts also announced Wednesday that it has received a shipment of 200,000 face masks and 200 medical-grade thermometers that it had begun distributing to the state's courts.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on May 8 directed hearings of all type to resume May 18 under Health Department guidelines.

The Health Department has generally recommended that people stay at least 6 feet from other people when in public and wear face coverings when that's not possible.

Gallery: Daily COVID-19 Briefing

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At his daily news conference on the pandemic, held Wednesday in Jonesboro, Hutchinson also said state officials are working on plans for classroom instruction for K-12 schools and colleges in the coming school year and that he will make a decision this summer on measures that should be taken to protect voters and poll workers during the election in November.

Speaking hours after some state lawmakers said during a Legislative Council meeting that they had heard from employers whose laid-off workers had refused to return to work, the governor said he had stopped by the state Division of Workforce Services to "thank all those who have been putting in so many hours to make sure the unemployment assistance gets out."

"Of course, we're hoping that those numbers go down, that more people are working," he said. "I would remind people that, you might have received unemployment assistance for some time, which we're glad for that opportunity, but as the opportunity comes to you to go back to work, go back to work.

"That is a responsibility, as well. We need people working here in the state of Arkansas."

LATEST CASES

The largest numbers of new cases were in Benton and Washington counties, in the state's northwest corner, reflecting the shift in the virus's growth to that part of the state.

Two cases were prison inmates whose test results were announced earlier but not added to the statewide count until information from a laboratory report was entered into a state database.

The cases grew by 24, to 339, in Benton County, which had 180 cases that were still active, meaning the person had tested positive and had not yet recovered.

Washington County's cases grew by 23, to 326, while its active cases increased to 190.

By contrast, only six cases were added in Pulaski County, raising its total to 808. Because other cases were newly classified as having recovered, the number of active cases in the state's most populous county remained the same, at 136.

The additional death in Washington County brought its death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Health Department, to six.

Meanwhile, Benton County recorded its first virus death last week, which did not appear to be reflected in the Health Department's count as of Wednesday, according to the Benton County coroner.

Coroner Daniel Oxford said the 98-year-old woman died Friday at her Bentonville home. He said she was not a nursing-home resident.

[Interactive Arkansas map not showing up above? Click here to see it: arkansasonline.com/arvirus]

'MANY OUTBREAKS'

Health Department Secretary Nate Smith noted the department's Central Arkansas public health region, made up of seven counties, was home to the state's first covid-19 cases but now has a slower growth rate than the other four regions.

According to a chart that Hutchinson displayed at his news conference, held Wednesday in Jonesboro, the number of cases in the northwest region, made up of 19 counties, grew by 58% last week.

The central region's cases grew by just 11%.

Among the other regions, the number of cases grew by 36% in the southwest region, which has 17 counties; 20% in the northeast region, which has 18 counties; and 16% in the southeast region, which has 14 counties.

The northeast region once had the highest growth rate, but now has a lower rate of growth than the state as a whole, Smith said.

The 1,197 cases that were added to the statewide total last week represented an increase of 26%.

"What we have seen is that rather than having one covid-19 outbreak in Arkansas, we've had many outbreaks in different parts of the state effective at different times," Smith said.

Targeting the northwestern part of the state, the Health Department on Saturday tested 300 to 400 people during an event Saturday at The Jones Center in Springdale, department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said.

He said results from those tests started to come in Wednesday.

Similar events are planned:

• From 3-7 p.m. Friday at the Yell County Health Unit in Dardanelle.

• From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Lehr Arena in West Memphis, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Simmons Bank Field and the De Queen Fire Department at 220 N. Second St.

• From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 6 at the Craighead County Health Unit in Jonesboro, Wrightsville City Hall and the Union County fairgrounds in El Dorado.

According to the Health Department, people will not have to pay out of pocket for the tests. They will be offered to anyone who wants one, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

Smith has said he hasn't seen a link between Arkansas' recent uptick in cases and the easing of restrictions on restaurants and other businesses.

Of the 1,727 Arkansans with active infections as of Tuesday afternoon, 14 said they had been to a restaurant in the two weeks before their diagnosis, according to a Health Department report.

During the same period, 19 said they had been to a barbershop, 12 had been to church, eight had been to a child care center, six had been to a hotel or motel.

Meanwhile, 55 said they had been to a health care provider, such as a doctor or dentist.

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PREPARING FOR FALL

By building the state's capacity to test people for the virus, investigate cases and distribute a vaccine if one is available, Hutchinson said state officials are preparing for the possibility of a resurgence of cases this fall, when he hopes to resume K-12 education in classrooms.

"Now we might have to take a break," he said. "We might have to have a lot of things differently. We might have to have some online instruction in combination with our classroom instruction, and that's what our education team is working on now."

The governor has said he wants to spend some of the $1.25 billion the state received through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act on telehealth and online education platforms.

He said Wednesday that he'll be seeking legislative approval "for funding for helping those areas of the state, rural Arkansas, that does not have access to high-speed rural broadband."

"We want to be able to get that to them so they're not hampered if you have to blend in some online instruction," he said.

Officials are also determining what kinds of additional training teachers might need. Also, he said there "might have to be some structural changes in some of the schools, just in terms of the shapes of the classroom, to allow more space."

He said details of the plan for schools will be "laid out in the coming weeks and months."

He said he will also make a decision by August on what measures are needed to protect voters and poll workers during the Nov. 3 general election.

"August is the time that the county clerks have to start printing ballots and getting ready for the fall election," he said. "So we want to wait and see exactly where we are in June and July, and make some decisions then as to what the November elections might look like and what safety precautions might be necessary."

Hutchinson has said in the past that he would consider allowing no-excuse absentee voting in November if the virus remains a threat.

After a visit to the White House last week, he expressed reservations about mail-in voting, then said a day later that it was too early to say what measures might be needed.

"All the voters that look at November should be assured that we're going to work very hard to make sure that whatever the condition of the virus is at that time, that we're going to have an election, and we're going to do everything that we can to have it in a safe fashion," Hutchinson said Wednesday.

NURSING-HOME DEATH

Among the Arkansans who died of the virus most recently was Stella Gentry, a 90-year-old resident at The Lakes at Maumelle Health and Rehabilitation.

She died Wednesday morning at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock.

Gentry was admitted to the hospital May 16 with shortness of breath, hypoxia and tachycardia. She was diagnosed with sepsis and a urinary tract infection, according to Pulaski County coroner's report.

A week earlier, Gentry had tested negative for the virus at the nursing home. Upon retesting at the hospital, Gentry was positive.

"Prior to this, she wheeled herself around in her own wheelchair; she fed herself, everything," said her granddaughter, Jennifer Williams.

"She had a stroke and couldn't speak anymore, but she could say, 'I love you.' Up until covid, she could fight off everything. But she couldn't fight this off."

According to the Health Department, at least eight other residents at the home have died after testing positive.

An additional 41 residents and 11 workers at the home have also tested positive, according to Health Department reports.

Williams said her grandmother was a strong woman who could do anything she set her mind to. Originally from North Little Rock, Gentry was married for more than 60 years to J.C. Gentry -- who served with the North Little Rock Fire Department -- before he passed away 10 years ago.

Gentry was the mother of two and grandmother of three. She was the oldest of eight siblings. Gentry and her late husband built a house on Old Country Lane in Cabot decades before the city experienced a population boom.

"She was a homemaker. She had the best gardening skills you could imagine," Williams said. "She had a half-acre garden where she canned and had bees, cows and pigs. It was just a beautiful garden."

Williams said she spent most weekends with her grandmother and grandfather as she was growing up.

"We were very close," Williams said. "She cooked all the time and was a great baker and seamstress. She could sew anything and she made quilts and clothes."

In fact, Williams said, her grandmother is being buried in a dress suit Gentry made for herself.

"She made a pencil skirt and a pair of pants to go with the jacket," Williams said. "It hasn't been decided yet if she will be buried in the skirt or the pants."

Williams said Gentry survived the death of her husband, as well as the death of a daughter at a young age and the loss of a grandson in a car accident.

"She grew up in the post-Depression era. She was born in 1930 and has survived everything. Then she died of covid," Williams said. "She was a good woman and she meant a lot to a lot of people. I know we're not the only family going through this ... but this is hard."

NEW HOMES AFFECTED

A Health Department report tracking deaths from the virus in nursing homes did not yet appear to include Gentry's death on Wednesday.

One death, however, was added to the department's count at The Waters of White Hall, raising the total number of virus deaths listed there to 15.

The report also indicated that covid-19 cases among workers were reported at Shiloh Nursing and Rehab in Springdale, Johnson County Health and Rehab in Clarksville, Jamestown Nursing and Rehab in Rogers and Windcrest Health and Rehab in Springdale.

That brought the number of nursing homes or assisted-living facilities where a resident worker had tested positive to 69.

The total number of deaths among residents at facilities across the state rose to 49.

The number of identified infections among residents, including those who have died, rose by four, to 413, while the number of workers who have tested positive increased by nine, to 224.

At the Cummins Unit, the number of cases among inmates rose by three, to 961. At least 65 staff members have also been infected.

No new cases were reported at the Federal Correctional Complex in Forrest City or Randall L. Williams Unit in Pine Bluff, which have also been the site of recent outbreaks.

Among all Arkansans, the number of active cases increased by four, to 1,733.

That reflected the cases added Wednesday as well as 92 people who tested positive earlier and were newly classified as having recovered.

Among nursing home residents, the number of active cases fell by four, to 68.

The number of active cases among prison inmates remained at 466. Among other Arkansans, the number of active cases increased by eight, to 1,199.

Smith said 575 of the state's cases have been health care workers, including 447 who recovered from the virus.

Information for this article was contributed by Eric Besson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and by Alex Golden of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Coronavirus daily updates and cumulative covid-19 cases in Arkansas

A Section on 05/28/2020

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