The number of Arkansas' coronavirus cases continued to tick upward Thursday as the state added 398 confirmed cases and 150 "probable" cases to its official tallies.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the state Department of Health, increased by 12, to 940, while the number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 fell by 19, to 392.
Those patients included 79 who were on ventilators, down from 82 a day earlier.
The state's confirmed cases are those that are confirmed through polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests. Probable cases include those diagnosed solely through less-sensitive antigen tests.
When both confirmed and probable cases are considered, the total number of cases added to the state's official counts each day has increased steadily since Monday, when the state reported 356 new confirmed or probable cases.
But Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was encouraged by the state's case numbers of the past few days, including the fewer than 400 confirmed cases that had been added each day for four days in a row.
He credited the state's contact-tracing efforts as well as precautions by Arkansans to avoid catching or spreading the virus.
"My sense is that people are taking it very seriously as we go back to school, that they are following the guidelines to a greater extent," he said.
"This is not where we want to be in a long-term result, but I'd much rather prefer a plateau here than at a much higher level, which we were tinkering with, it seems, a couple weeks ago," he added.
The number of cases added Thursday was the highest since Sunday, when 698 confirmed or probable cases were added to the state's totals.
It was well below the 1,174 cases -- including a record 1,094 that were confirmed -- that were added Sept. 4.
The state's cumulative count of confirmed cases rose Thursday to 66,804, while its count of probable cases increased to 999.
Over a rolling seven-day period, the average number of confirmed or probable cases added to the state's totals fell by 67, to 614.
Hutchinson also told reporters that starting next week, he will hold news conferences on the virus once a week "or as necessary," instead of every weekday.
The Republican governor had been holding the daily or near-daily briefings since March 11, when the state's first case was diagnosed.
Since then, he said, the Health Department has added tools on its website allowing the public to keep track of the virus'S spread.Gallery: Gov. Hutchinson's daily briefing, 9-10-2020
He said the state has also "built the infrastructure to meet the needs of the pandemic," including increasing the state's testing capacity and, through contracts with vendors, its staff of contact tracers. These improvements reduced the need for daily updates.
"I also emphasize that just because we're not having a daily update does not mean that we are not in an emergency," Hutchinson said.
"We continue to be in an emergency as long as we have the national emergency, as well as we have the case counts that we're having."
Asked about President Donald Trump's admission, in a recorded interview with journalist Bob Woodward on March 19, that he deliberately understated the danger of the virus in his public statements, Hutchinson said, "I don't think anybody is surprised by the fact that he tried to encourage the economy, he tried to minimize some of this virus and its impact."
He said other public officials, such as infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, were providing accurate information, so "the public is not misled on that."
In meetings with federal officials, Hutchinson said he was never told to minimize the threat posed by the virus.
"We all hear President Trump's public comments, and everybody understands what he was doing, how he's communicating in his unique style," Hutchinson said.
He said he also understood the need for a leader to "not create panic."
"If you remember here in Arkansas, we were going to fill up War Memorial Stadium with the need for hospital space," Hutchinson said. "Well, that's information that is out there, but we don't stress it as leaders because that does create -- it was not realistic and it would create extraordinary concern.
"So I think there is that balance of being honest and straightforward, but at the same time not creating panic."
Addressing other news from the nation's capital, after Democratic senators blocked a Republican-sponsored coronavirus relief bill, Hutchinson said he's always been skeptical Congress would pass such a measure before the Nov. 3 election.
But he said he hopes a measure will pass after that. He said he's not worried about the state's budget but does hope to be granted an extension on the deadline to spend the state's $1.25 billion allocation under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed by Congress in March, by the end of this year.
"There's other needs that are out there, but that's the most important issue that I hope that they address," Hutchinson said.
Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration, said the state has obligated $954 million from those funds, including $457 million that has been spent or distributed.
Hutchinson said the money will be needed beyond the end of the year for items such as an immunization program once a vaccine is available and expanding access to high-speed Internet.
Also on Thursday, Deputy Education Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer said Tuckerman High School and Fordyce Elementary School are among the latest schools to shift some of their classes to remote instruction in response to coronavirus cases.
The high school, which is part of the Jackson County School District, shifted to all-virtual instruction Thursday, with plans to resume in-classroom instruction on Sept. 21.
"Although we had a low percentage of our students at THS who tested positive, they were involved in large group activities that required several students to quarantine for the next 14 days," the district said in messages on its website and Facebook page.
Fordyce Elementary went to all-virtual instruction for third graders Wednesday after a student's positive test result caused 17 others to have to quarantine, Fordyce School District Superintendent Judy Hubbell said in a letter posted to the district's Facebook page.
"We have 52 students in third grade, making this 33% of our third grade that needs quarantined," Hubbell said in the letter.
She said classes would be held virtually through the end of the week.
"This will give us an opportunity to deep clean the third grade classrooms, and hopefully, break the chain of contagion," Hubbell said in the letter.
Hutchinson and Education Secretary Johnny Key have said they expect schools to be open to in-classroom instruction every day when classes are normally held, although they can also offer virtual options such as shifting to online-only classes in response to infections among employees or students.
At Parkview Magnet High School in Little Rock, in the 24-hour period ending at 3 p.m. Thursday, one student tested positive and 10 others were told to quarantine, the Little Rock School District reported.
The district also reported that Jefferson and Terry elementary schools each had one student who was required to quarantine during the period.
Additionally, four staff members were required to quarantine: one each at Gibbs Magnet and Roberts elementaries and at Parkview and Southwest high schools.
Statewide, the number of cases among public school students and employees rose by 253, to 2,585, between Monday and Thursday, the Health Department reported.
The cases as of Thursday included at least 1,920 students and 641 employees. Those don't equal the combined total due to "unavailable data," according to the report.
From Monday to Thursday, the number of cases among students and employees that were considered active, meaning the person had tested positive and had not yet recovered, rose by 19, to 525.
The Fort Smith School District continued to have the largest number of active cases among students and employees.
It had 30 such cases on Thursday, up from 24 on Monday, according to the report.
The Batesville district had the next highest active case total, 15, followed by the Springdale School District, which also had 15, and the Little Rock district, which had 13.
At private schools, the number of active cases among students and employees increased from Monday to Thursday by four, to 24.
Meanwhile, the Health Department reported that colleges and universities had 1,293 active cases among students and employees as of Thursday, up from 1,241 on Monday.
The department's tally showed a decline in active cases for the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, as did the university's Wednesday update to its case totals, the most recent available.
The statewide report on Thursday listed UA as having 953 active cases, down from 961 in Monday's report.
Fifteen college campuses had at least five active cases as reported Thursday, up from 10 campuses on Monday.
The statewide report has provided different, often lower totals than information reported by individual schools, however.
The report listed Arkansas State University as having 70 active cases, the second most of any college or university.
But ASU on its website Thursday gave a higher total: 172 active covid-19 cases, up from 136 a day earlier.
A university spokesman, Bill Smith, said no single factor has driven the increase.
At an ASU virtual town-hall-style forum on Thursday, one submitted question cited the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' projections for an increase in deaths statewide and asked, "Is it worth keeping us on campus to put our lives at risk?"
"For right now, it seems like our protocol is working, so we'll follow our protocol until we deem it's not safe to do so," Chancellor Kelly Damphousse responded.
He said the university, where students started fall semester classes on Aug. 25, is "modifying all events on campus," with some canceled, some moving virtually and others "distanced," a reference to physical distancing.
Masks are required indoors when physical distancing is not able to be practiced and in classrooms, he said. Students outdoors also are to wear masks if near others.
"We recognize that not everyone's doing that," Damphousse said of the requirement.
"When they haven't followed the protocols, we've dealt with them on an individual basis," he added.
He noted the university has an online tool available to report those not following protocols.
"Everyone's responsible for enforcing this," he said.
The Jonesboro campus, the state's second-largest by enrollment behind UA, this fall has about 13,000 students, including approximately 2,900 living on campus, according to its website.
Smith said the campus has about 44% of its courses meeting face-to-face and 32% either online or in a "hybrid" format. Another 24% are nontraditional courses, such as internships and practicums, that are not easily categorized, Smith said.
One question asked in the town-hall forum was why professors were not required to provide an online option for their courses.
Provost Alan Utter said the campus developed recommendations over the spring and summer that call for faculty to be prepared to teach online-only "should we have to go that way."
Damphousse said that should in-person instruction be halted, it could be done for a two-week period.
Another option would be similar to what took place in the spring, when all classes went online through the end of the semester.
"We want to avoid that as much as possible because we think that there is a diminishing quality of education" if all classes go online, he said.
When asked about quarantine spaces, Damphousse said their availability is a factor in any decision about switching to online-only. In a message to campus Wednesday, he said the university's isolation beds are at about 20% capacity.
Smith has said 110 spaces have been set aside for isolation or quarantine. In an email Thursday, he said many students are isolating at home or "in place," and so aren't requiring use of the designated spaces.
Students and employees at ASU may be referred to the NYIT Medical Clinic for testing.
Shane Speights, dean of the NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State, said it's "not a bad idea" when asked if ASU planned to host a mass testing event.
But, he said, "there's still, in some regards, a shortage on the actual test kit." It would likely take "a couple of weeks" to prepare for such an event if the goal is to test thousands, he said.
At other universities, including UA, the Health Department has partnered with a campus to hold testing events.
CASES BY COUNTY
The state's count of confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 72 in Pulaski County, 37 in Washington County, 33 in Jefferson County, 30 in Craighead County and 18 in Saline County.
Among prison and jail inmates, the state's count of confirmed cases rose by six. Such increases can reflect new cases or ones that were added to the state's total earlier but not immediately classified as coming from a jail or prison.
Cases among inmates also sometimes aren't added to the state's total until several days after the test is performed, after information from laboratory reports is entered into a database.
The number of confirmed cases that were considered active fell by 362, to 5,196, as 748 Arkansans were newly classified as having recovered.
The state's count of virus deaths increased by one, to 44, among Arkansans age 25-44; by two, to 220, among those age 45-64; and by nine, to 675, among residents 65 or older.
Among nursing home residents, the state's count of virus deaths rose by four to 328.
The number of people in the state who have ever been hospitalized with the virus rose by 32, to 4,606, while the number who have ever been on a ventilator increased by three, to 589.
Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.