Two weeks after instituting a stay-at-home order for Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Monday said the New Orleans area was no longer on track to run out of ventilators and hospital beds this week as the state sees what officials hope are the first measurable signs of the outbreak slowing.
The governor cautioned that officials still need several days of data to confirm their hopes that they are seeing steep restrictions on face-to-face contact “bear real results.” And he warned residents not to let up on complying with those measures.
“We are hopeful we’re starting to see the beginning of flattening the curve,” Edwards said, taking his most optimistic tone yet since the coronavirus began ripping through New Orleans and elsewhere. “We have to keep doing everything we’ve been doing to have the best possible outcome.”
For weeks, Edwards’ administration has projected the greater New Orleans region was on track to run out of ventilators and hospital beds in the first two weeks of April, as officials raced to stand up facilities to house patients and land badly-needed ventilators and other equipment.
But hospitalizations and the number of patients on ventilators has flattened in recent days, and Edwards said the area was no longer on track to run out of those resources this week. He declined to provide a new date for when that is projected to happen.
Hospitals are dealing with fewer patients that require ventilators than initially projected, and patients are spending fewer days on the ventilators, according to Edwards. The number of new admissions to hospitals has fallen. And the rate at which people in Louisiana are dying of the disease, which was initially much higher than other areas, has started to come closer into line with other states.
Still, Louisiana has one of the highest rates of death from the virus in the country, and half of the top 20 counties or parishes nationwide for deaths per capita are in Louisiana, an alarming increase from a few days ago when six parishes were on the list, compiled by University of Louisiana at Lafayette economist Gary Wagner.
St. John the Baptist Parish leads the nation by far in that metric. Orleans, St. James, West Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Charles, Allen, St. Bernard and Iberville parishes are also on the list. And new data released by the Louisiana Department of Health shows wide racial disparities, with African Americans comprising 70% of the deaths in Louisiana.
As of Monday, Louisiana had confirmed 14,867 cases of the novel coronavirus and 512 deaths, putting the state near the top of the list nationwide for cases and deaths per capita. The figures represented an increase of 1,857 new cases, and Edwards pointed to Louisiana’s relatively high rate of testing compared to other states, though the United States as a whole had a slow start to testing and has administered fewer tests per capita than several other countries, hampering the nation's ability to respond to the pandemic.
The U.S. as a whole has reported more than 337,000 cases and more than 9,600 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Edwards said the White House has told his administration to stick with social distancing measures, including a stay-at-home order, through April. The state's stay-at-home order, which shutters K-12 schools, bars, casinos, gyms and a host of other businesses, is currently in place until at least April 30th, but Edwards has warned residents to prepare for disruptions to daily life for potentially months.
The state is seeing encouraging data for the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals and on ventilators. Across Louisiana, only six more patients were in hospitals Monday compared to a day earlier, with the number standing at 1,809. The number of patients on ventilators rose by just two, to 563.
Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health, said the administration has been tracking the number of deaths that take place each day – instead of what it has so far released publicly, the number of deaths confirmed each day. Those numbers, which will be added to a public state dashboard Monday, are showing improvement, he said.
Coupled with the improvement in Louisiana’s numbers are the fruit of furious efforts by the state and hospitals to surge medical capacity, especially in the New Orleans region.
Edwards said the state has secured 753 ventilators in recent weeks, and has distributed all but 200 of them. Of those, 350 came from the federal stockpile, where Edwards has asked for 7,000.
And after officials rapidly executed a contract and began construction on a temporary hospital facility at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, patients have begun moving into the facility, which will be able to house 2,000. Those patients will come directly from hospitals after being deemed well enough to leave intensive care to free up hospital beds.
Those efforts – and others to establish isolation sites, secure personal protective equipment and staff testing sites – have added up to hundreds of millions of dollars in state spending. As of Monday, Louisiana had spent a staggering $573 million on coronavirus response since the outbreak became known here, more than double the total from last week, according to a breakdown provided by the administration. The budget for the Convention Center project alone has grown to $109.5 million.
Louisiana is currently slated to foot 25% of the bill for its coronavirus spending, which is expected to continue to increase, with the federal government picking up the rest. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said once the state spends $660 million, the split is expected to change to a 90%-10% federal-state match.
Officials hope to be able to use some of the $1.8 billion in federal stimulus money coming to Louisiana’s coffers on its state share of the split, even though federal law normally prohibits using federal money to match other federal money. Dardenne said the administration expected guidance on those funds in a week.
The improving projections from the state came as a closely-watched model by the University of Washington changed dramatically in Louisiana’s favor over the weekend, indicating Louisiana had already hit its peak for the virus in terms of deaths and resources needed.
But the projections from that model are out of step with the number of deaths seen in Louisiana on Sunday, and several more days of data are likely needed to determine whether the model is accurately describing the state of the pandemic here.
Edwards said while it is “heartening” to see models that show a lower death toll, the numbers in that particular model “don’t match up that well with what we’ve already experienced.” He said officials are working to reconcile that model with the state’s own.
“We do believe regardless of what the Washington model shows, we’re starting to see improvements in our numbers, related principally the hospitalizations and deaths,” Edwards said.
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.