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As Dr. Lester Wayne Johnson, right, watches, Gov. John Bel Edwards answers questions during a media briefing on Louisiana's response to COVID-19 and vaccine distribution when it becomes available Thursday December 10, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has extended the state’s current Phase 2 coronavirus restrictions for another three weeks, as hospitalizations and other metrics continue to remain high ahead of Christmas.

The governor said during a Tuesday press conference he will keep the “status quo” for another 21 days. The third surge of coronavirus cases has filled up hospitals around the state and prompted the governor last month to roll back occupancy at some businesses and close down most bars as part of the modified Phase 2 restrictions.

“It’s clear we still have a lot of work to do,” Edwards said. “But there has been some slight improvement that we’ve noticed.”

Edwards pointed to coronavirus data that show the state may be seeing a plateau of cases, but at a “very high level.” Cases began surging in November in Louisiana after the state avoided the national surge of cases and hospitalizations for weeks.

The governor said percent positivity – a crucial metric of the share of tests resulting in COVID-19 cases – has dipped, which is encouraging. At the same time, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 remained above 1,600, which was the peak of a summer wave of coronavirus that overwhelmed some hospitals across the state. Louisiana has confirmed nearly 7,000 deaths from COVID-19.

He also pleaded with people not to hold traditional large Christmas gatherings, warning that the virus will spread to unprecedented levels.

The decision to keep the modified Phase 2 restrictions in place keeps 50% occupancy limits in place for most businesses, and only allows bars to open indoors at 25% if their parish has seen two straight weeks of 5% or less positivity.

It also comes as the state embarks on a mass immunization effort that officials hope will end the pandemic in 2021. As of Tuesday, the state’s hospitals had administered 22,108 doses.

The state received 39,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine last week and was slated to receive another 28,275 doses of that vaccine and 79,500 doses of a vaccine manufactured by Moderna in this week's shipment. About half of those doses of Moderna's vaccine will go straight to long-term care facilities like nursing homes, through a federal partnership with Walgreens and CVS that will begin immunizations after Christmas. The rest will go mainly to smaller hospitals and first responders through Morris & Dickson, a north Louisiana pharmaceutical distributor.

By next week, the state will have received more than 210,000 doses of vaccines, Dr. Joe Kanter, the head of coronavirus response at the state Health Department, said.

There are between 200,000 and 215,000 people included in Phase 1A of the vaccine distribution, comprising mostly hospital workers and people who live and work at long-term care facilities. Both Pfizer's and Moderna's vaccine requires two shots weeks apart. 

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Kanter said the state will likely follow federal guidance on who to include next in line. A federal advisory panel on Sunday recommended states include people 75 years and older and front-line essential workers, followed by those 65 and older, people with significant comorbid health conditions and other essential workers. Depending on the details, that could be a huge share of Louisiana’s population.

Louisiana’s health officials are still reviewing the guidance and are awaiting more detailed information, Kanter said.

Why state auditor says Louisiana's coronavirus data for positivity rates may be incomplete

“It’s not going to look drastically different from what (the feds) recommended,” he said of the state’s next priority groups for the vaccine.

Kanter said it’s not yet clear how many people who have been offered the vaccine have refused so far, though he said the “x-factor” in the state’s mass immunization program will be how many people will show up immediately to get the vaccine. In an effort to use extra doses, the state has given vaccines to some people outside Phase 1A, like those with late-stage renal disease who receive dialysis, officials said.

The shift to vaccinating people outside of the first priority group will be gradual, and not like flipping a light switch, Edwards added.

Louisiana initially was told to expect 40,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in the second shipment, which began arriving Monday. But that was downgraded to less than 29,000 late last week. Gen. Gustave Perna, the head of the Trump administration’s vaccine distribution, apologized last weekend for a “miscommunication” with states over the number of doses, saying not all vaccine doses that were produced were ready to be released because of quality control measures.

Louisiana expects to receive 27,500 additional doses of Moderna’s vaccine and 36,075 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine next week.

Edwards’ extension of Phase 2 restrictions also follows a Louisiana Supreme Court decision to vacate a Baton Rouge judge’s ruling in a high-profile case about a previous iteration of the virus rules. The state high court found Judge William Morvant of the 19th Judicial District Court prematurely ruled that a petition used by House Republicans to toss all of Edwards’ virus restrictions was unconstitutional. Instead, he should have weighed the merits of the case – such as whether the Republican lawmakers followed the law when filing the petition – before deciding it was unconstitutional.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican representing the lawmakers, said Monday the ruling “maintains that Louisiana is not a dictatorship” and that the governor’s orders are “not enforceable.”

Edwards said Tuesday he is certain the Republican lawmakers did not follow the law when filing the petition because they didn’t meaningfully consult with public health officials, a requirement of the obscure SARS pandemic-era law they invoked. That point was not argued in Morvant’s courtroom last month because he suggested the petition was moot, as it sought to revoke coronavirus restrictions that had expired when Edwards issued a new public health emergency.

“I’m absolutely certain the statute is unconstitutional,” Edwards added. “We cannot have a system of checks and balances where one body of the Legislature can overrule the governor.”


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com