* Education minister is sixth top official to catch virus
* Confirmed nationwide infections pass 250,000 mark
* But senior health official says growth rate has halted (Recasts with new details, background)
By Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW, May 14 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday Russia’s education minister had caught the new coronavirus, making him at least the sixth senior official to be swept up in the pandemic that has officially infected more than 250,000 people nationwide.
But Anna Popova, a senior health official, said Russia had managed to stop the growth rate of infection after authorities reported a one-day rise in new coronavirus cases of fewer than 10,000 for the first time in almost two weeks.
Putin, speaking at a televised government meeting via video link, said it was “no secret” that Valery Falkov, 41, the minister of science and higher education, had tested positive and recovered, and asked him how he was feeling.
“Thank you Vladimir Vladimirovich, I’m better already and I’m actively back at work,” the minister replied.
Falkov is the fourth member of Putin’s government known to have caught the coronavirus, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin who is still recovering, but has remotely attended at least one government meeting by video conference.
Earlier this week, the Kremlin’s veteran spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said he had also fallen ill with the coronavirus and contracted double pneumonia.
The Kremlin has said the health of Putin, 67, is carefully guarded and most of his recent public appearances have been at government meetings via video link from a room at his residence outside Moscow.
Moscow and much of the country are in their seventh week of a lockdown, but factory and construction workers have gone back to work after Putin said on Monday that a gradual easing of the restrictions was feasible.
On Thursday, Russia’s official coronavirus case tally passed the 250,000 mark after 9,974 new cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, the lowest one-day rise in almost two weeks.
“I would say that today we have halted growth,” Popova said in the preview of a video interview due to be aired on Sunday on the Rossiya-1 television channel.
At 252,245, the case total is the second highest in the world after the United States, although authorities say the high figure shows how thoroughly officials are testing people.
Ninety-three people died overnight, pushing the death toll to 2,305, a level that is well below many countries and has prompted the Kremlin’s critics to cast doubt on the accuracy of the figure. Officials deny any data manipulation.
Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, said on Thursday that authorities would begin free mass testing of residents from Friday and that they aimed to be testing 100,000 people a day by the end of the month. (Additional reporting by Gleb Stolyarov and Alexander Marrow; Editing by Giles Elgood)