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Dr. Alex Billioux, M.D., Assistant Secretary of Health for the La. Dept. of Health's Office of Public Health, speaks at Gov. John Bel Edwards' regular COVID-19 media briefing, Wednesday, June 10, 2020 at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Sign language interpreter Daniel Burch is at left.

State officials on Wednesday warned that disturbingly few Louisiana residents are wearing masks and that more need to pick up calls from contact tracers, as the state sees what Gov. John Bel Edwards described as concerning trends in three regions.

Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health, said health leaders across the state taken note of how many people in their communities are wearing masks, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends as a way to prevent people from spreading the highly-contagious coronavirus to others.

“What we hear over and over again is really inconsistent mask-wearing, if not worse,” Billioux said.

Edwards, in his stay-at-home order that ended in May and in the phased reopening that has taken place since, has not mandated people wear masks, unless they are an employee who interacts with the public. Instead, officials have strongly urged the public to wear a mask.

Billioux said in New Orleans, where he lives, it appears more are wearing masks than in other parts of the state.

The state has also spent millions of dollars on the cornerstone of its reopening plan – contact tracing, a practice in which workers call people who have been infected, track down their close contacts and advise they self-isolate or quarantine.

But officials on Wednesday also acknowledged that effort is hitting speedbumps.

The state, through contract workers, has been able to reach less than half of infected people it has reached out to, and slightly more than half of contacts identified. And the state is unable to reach out to a significant chunk of people, sometimes because of a lack of contact information.

“It will not be effective if we can’t reach people on the telephone,” Billioux said.

Edwards has loosened restrictions put in place in March to stem the rise of the coronavirus. On May 15 the governor allowed restaurants to do dine-in, barber shops and salons and other businesses to open, all at 25% capacity. On June 5th, Phase 2 of the reopening began, allowing bars to reopen at 25% capacity and letting businesses that were operating at 25% to boost that to 50%.

Even as restrictions are being loosened, Edwards warned that the virus still poses the same risk, especially to the most vulnerable.

Officials said three regions – the greater Monroe, Alexandria and Lake Charles areas – have experienced concerning numbers of cases and hospitalizations.

Edwards has said repeatedly that even though cases may be rising, it’s important to look at how many come from congregant settings, like nursing homes and prisons. The state has so far not provided that breakdown each day, but Billioux said Wednesday that of the 418 cases reported, 11% came from congregant settings.

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