BR.govcorona.040820 HS 611.JPG

Governor John Bel Edwards answers Louisianian-submitted questions as Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the Office of Public Health, looks on during a media availability to discuss the presence and spread of COVID-19 in Louisiana, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, at GOHSEP in Baton Rouge, La.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday implored residents to continue to stay home as much as possible as the state sees data on the coronavirus outbreak promising enough to cause officials to say the New Orleans region is no longer on track to run out of hospital beds and ventilators in the next two weeks.

The new projections provide the latest indication that the stay-at-home order issued over two weeks ago could be paying off at a critical time – when the New Orleans region was previously scheduled to start running out of health care resources.

Edwards warned that letting up on the restrictions now would spell doom to those efforts. But he said he continues to see early evidence that the number of cases is no longer on as steep a trajectory, even if he can’t say it with “absolute confidence.”

“We are seeing early signs that the curve is starting to flatten,” Edwards said. “But what this means is we have to continue to do those things that have caused the curve to flatten.”

“What it really means is our mitigation measures are starting to work and show up in the numbers. The exact wrong thing to do is to stop the mitigation measures.”

The governor and other officials have spent recent weeks soliciting ventilators from anywhere they could, as they raced against the clock to surge medical capacity in New Orleans, one of the hardest-hit cities in the U.S. The state took drastic steps, including sourcing ventilators that would normally not be deemed suitable for intensive care units, and warning that hospitals could resort to putting multiple patients on one machine.

But in recent days a combination of dominos have fallen in Louisiana’s favor. Fewer patients are on ventilators than once thought, in part because providers are not putting as many patients on the machines, and Edwards called the state’s trend on new hospitalizations “really good,” after the rise has slowed in recent days.

On Tuesday, Edwards said he has reduced his order for ventilators from private vendors from 14,000 to 1,000, to avoid getting an influx of ventilators the state may not need.

However, officials said it’s still too early to celebrate. While hospitalizations are tracking better, Louisiana’s deaths are still alarming, Edwards indicated. State officials have said deaths and hospitalizations are the two most important metrics to watch. Louisiana confirmed 70 more deaths Tuesday, its largest single-day jump, though delays in reporting means many of those happened in previous days.

“The trajectory we're on, if you just look at deaths, is not so good,” he said. “And so the two most critical pieces of information are not in agreement with one another as to what's going on out there. We're still a little bit in the dark.”

The number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations rose by 15 Tuesday, to 1,996. That was about 500 more than a week earlier. The number of patients on ventilators has fallen for three consecutive days, from 571 on Saturday to 552 Tuesday.

The death toll rose to 582 on Tuesday, and officials have expressed growing concern that Louisiana’s poor health outcomes are putting the state’s residents more at risk of dying from the virus. And new data released this week by the Louisiana Department of Health shows more than 70% of the people who have died from the virus are black, a disparity that the governor said was “disturbing.”

Vaccine news in your inbox

Once a week we'll update you on the progress of COVID-19 vaccinations. Sign up today.

Some health officials in the New Orleans area indicated they were seeing positive signs as well. Greg Feirn, CEO of LCMC Health, said the system continues to see “favorable trends” that indicate social distancing is working, and he credited Edwards with helping boost its cache of personal protective equipment.

An Ochsner Health System spokesperson said officials there were encouraged by the trends they’re seeing, including a “preliminary flattening of hospital and ICU admissions” and people recovering from COVID-19.

Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University who studies infectious diseases, said the stay-at-home order has undoubtedly cut down on infections. But she cautioned against taking too much confidence from a handful of figures over the last few days.

"Do I think we've got the numbers yet to say that definitively? No," said Hassig. "We’re not to the point where I would be confident that we have a trend."

While the New Orleans region is showing signs of improvement, other regions of the state may still face problems in the coming days and weeks. Because New Orleans’ outbreak began earlier than other places, testing is further along there and efforts to surge hospital beds and other equipment have centered around the region.

“I think the anticipation was that Baton Rouge would hit peak resource date after New Orleans,” said Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens. “You would expect to see some other areas of the state that could have issues down the line.”

Even as the state cuts back on ventilator orders, it is still moving forward with efforts to boost the number of beds in the New Orleans area that are available to coronavirus patients. A private contractor is building a 2,000-bed temporary hospital at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and the state has inked deals for hotels in the region that will be used for similar purposes.

The governor said those will be necessary as people without coronavirus who have stayed away from the hospital as doctors delayed elective procedures will have to go to the hospital eventually. And while the state has seen encouraging signs in coronavirus patients, he indicated there could always be another surge.

Alex Billioux, assistant secretary of the state’s Office of Public Health, said along with social distancing and the efforts to find more equipment and beds, providers are keeping people off vents where possible, driving down that number. He said in conversations with hospital officials, the falling number of patients on ventilators is largely because they are coming off alive, not because they are dying in large numbers.

The Department of Health also released new data showing when patients with the coronavirus first started experiencing symptoms. As many had anticipated, that data shows that large numbers of people had been infected long before they were officially confirmed as coronavirus cases.

According to the data, nearly 12,140 people who would later test positive for COVID-19 had first experienced symptoms by March 26. At the time, there were only about 2,300 confirmed cases in the state and it would take more than a week for the official count to catch up.

Staff writers Emily Woodruff, Bryn Stole and Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com