Louisiana state health officials told lawmakers Wednesday they are hoping federal aid will allow them to bulk up their team of staffers responding to the new coronavirus, including those in New Orleans working to identify a growing number of people who have come into contact with patients who tested positive for the virus.

“We’re very quickly identifying more contacts and it’s really taxing that team,” Assistant Secretary for the Office of Public Health Alex Billioux told lawmakers in a joint hearing of the state House Health and Welfare and Homeland Security committees.

With six “presumptive positive” cases in the greater New Orleans region so far, lawmakers in both the House and Senate received their first briefing from state health officials, who told them the elderly and sick should avoid large gatherings of people. About 80% of people who get COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, and the virus has infected nearly 1,000 people in the U.S. with 29 deaths. The World Health organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the state had not confirmed any additional cases beyond the five Orleans Parish residents and one Jefferson Parish resident who tested positive for the virus. Five of those patients are being treated in New Orleans and one is hospitalized in St. Tammany Parish. 

Interim Louisiana Department of Health Secretary Stephen Russo said he expects Louisiana will receive $7 million to $8 million in the short term as part of a $8 billion federal spending package aimed at responding to the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. He said it is unclear how much Louisiana will get total from the bill.

Russo said the Health Department also needs to ensure its hotline that providers call to determine if their patient qualifies for a state COVID-19 test doesn’t get “bogged down,” and is shifting resources to meet the demand.

“We’re trying to repurpose some of their jobs to temporary workers … so there’s no delay in testing,” Russo said.

Russo also said the Health Department has not considered delaying the removal of Medicaid recipients from the program, set for this month under the state’s stricter wage verification system that has been in place for about a year.

In their first public opportunity to ask about COVID-19 since gaveling into session Monday, legislators peppered LDH leaders with a wide range of questions about the virus. Louisiana’s State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry said officials have discussed what to do if there is an outbreak of the virus at the State Capitol during the legislative session, but he noted Baton Rouge currently has no confirmed cases.

While New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell cancelled several large weekend events amid the discovery of six cases in the region, Guidry said “there is no best decision” on how to handle large gatherings of people, but that officials should make decisions based on the “amount of disease we have in a community.”

He specifically pointed to Festival International, a music festival in Lafayette that brings artists from all over the world, saying, “there is risk in that.”

“I think what we’re trying to do is make sure we’re getting enough tests done to feel comfortable we know what’s in the community,” he said.

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Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com