Several weeks have passed since many of Louisiana’s K-12 schools reopened for in-person learning and college students flocked back to campuses, and the worst-case scenario for the coronavirus has not played out, with relatively low numbers of cases being reported and hospitalizations dropping to the lowest point since early June.
While leaders of the state’s response to the pandemic say the figures are encouraging, however, they also warn of an expected spike of cases in the fall. And much like in the summer, they worry people will once again let their guard down, letting the coronavirus run rampant at maskless gatherings.
“I predict there’s going to be another spike,” Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the State Health Officer of Louisiana, told skeptical Republicans in a legislative hearing this week. “And it’s going to be in flu season. And we’re going to see as much if not more than we saw in the spring.”
As the weather gets colder, people will be increasingly driven indoors, where the virus spreads more freely. Plus, looser restrictions under the Phase 3 guidelines — including an increasing number of reopened bars — will be bringing more people together, Guidry said in an interview.
So far, Guidry said he’s comfortable enough with the numbers to say the precautions put in place for school reopenings are working. At the same time, he noted testing numbers are down in the month of September, with hurricanes displacing thousands and knocking out community testing sites.
About 3,470 new cases were reported to the state last week. That continues a trend that has been largely unbroken since mid-August, when a steep decline from the state’s second peak over the summer turned into a much more gradual plateau.
The number of tests reported is only at about 58% of its peak at the beginning of August, though the percentage of tests that result in new cases — a metric that can be used to compare infection rates between time periods with different quantities of testing — remains at its lowest levels since the start of the pandemic. Roughly 3.4% of tests in the state resulted in new diagnoses over the last week, a drop of 2.5 percentage points from a month before.
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Dr. Catherine O’Neal, infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge who advises Republican lawmakers and the Democratic governor on the coronavirus, said it’s still too early to say the state has weathered the reopening of K-12 schools. Many of them haven’t come back to full-time in-person learning. O’Neal said her middle- and high school-aged children just recently returned to classes in person for the first time.
There are signs the reopening of schools has led to an increase in infections among children. In the week ending Sept. 23 — the most recent set of data on the age of those infected — 12.2% of all new coronavirus patients were between the ages of 6 and 17. That’s the highest rate for that age group since the start of the pandemic and a roughly 47% increase from the proportion of cases in that range over the summer.
Beyond the reopening of schools and colder weather driving people indoors, O’Neal said she is concerned with people letting their guard down, welcoming friends over for big parties on game day and planning weddings. In May, when the governor was moving the state to Phase 2 of reopening, O’Neal said people were already starting to hold more social gatherings, especially around Memorial Day. That prompted a new spike in cases in the summer.
“I believe now we’re seeing that again. We’re seeing people planning weddings, planning parties, having get-togethers in their home for football season,” O’Neal said. “We traditionally do a lot of social events in the fall. That’s the key to spread — socialization. I do anticipate an increase.”
And such an increase could have far more dire implications for hospitals than previous spikes. In a normal year, O’Neal said the Lake’s intensive care unit beds typically have 80 patients in them during the summer months, surging up to near capacity in the 90s during flu season. That requires the hospital to surge its staffing to meet the demand in the fall and winter.
The last few months of this year, however, the hospital has stayed in the 120s for full ICU beds, O’Neal said. As of Friday, the main hospital had 97 adult patients in the intensive care unit.
“We exist in a flu season-like number now,” she said. “That doesn’t bode well for flu season. We just don’t know what to anticipate.”
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Statewide, about 30% of ICU beds are empty, though the Lafayette and Shreveport regions have fewer than 20% of their critical care beds available for new patients and the Baton Rouge area was hovering just above that figure.
Gov. John Bel Edwards is meanwhile taking political heat for his restrictions. Republican lawmakers called themselves into a month-long special session where targeting the Democrat’s executive power to issue restrictions has taken center stage in the opening days.
Edwards noted the state’s numbers are remaining low even after Labor Day, the reopening of many K-12 schools, the return of college students and hurricanes that brought tens of thousands of line workers to the state.
But he also noted a paradox in battling the virus: As cases decline, people are more likely to relax their attitudes and precautions about the virus.
“I know it’s human nature so it’s understandable,” Edwards said. “But sometimes when we do better with our numbers, the desire for people to roll back our restrictions and mitigation measures increases, even though we’re only doing better because of those restrictions and mitigation measures.”
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this report