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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks, talking about 'flattening the curve' of the spread of COVID-19 by limiting contact between people, at a briefing of media members on the state’s coronavirus response at an afternoon press conference at the Governor's Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management in Baton Rouge, La., Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Sign language interpreter Daniel Burch is next to him, left. At the time of the afternoon press conference, 46 deaths in Louisiana had been attributed to COVID-19.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday that his office is no longer considering using college dormitories as a housing option for step-down coronavirus patients, and the state is now focusing on leasing hotels across Louisiana as an option to unburden its limited hospital capacity.

The decision comes a day after Edwards said the state government was "looking at multiple options" in alleviating crowded hospital space in New Orleans, which Edwards warned President Donald Trump in a letter Monday could exceed capacity by April 4 if the number of the state's new COVID-19 cases continues to soar at its current rate.

Leading up to Edwards' official announcement, hotels appeared to be the state's most viable option.

In the letter to Trump, Edwards requested a Major Disaster Declaration for Louisiana, which the White House approved late Tuesday night, and Edwards wrote that the state has begun contracting to build out hotels "which will provide additional hospital beds to supplement diminishing hospital capacity."

School officials also had said there were several logistical issues surrounding making dorm rooms effective healthcare units. Dorms, which aren't designed for healthcare purposes, lack medical equipment, proper beds and trained staffing, among other shortcomings.

Edwards said it was these issues, especially staffing, that eventually steered his office toward hotels.

"When you create what is essentially a hospital, but it is not connected to an existing hospital, the staffing becomes a real challenge," Edwards said. "And staffing is even a bigger challenge if you create lots of smaller hospitals and then you have the logistical problems of getting the staffing to where they need to go, but you also have to get all the supplies — the (personal protective equipment), the pharmacy, the wraparound services you need.

"And so, as we work through this, we inevitably work our way towards looking at a large-capacity facility where we think we can build out rapidly the capacity that we need, from bed space to equipment and then have a much easier, but not easy, time to staff as well. That’s why in some of the areas we initially considered are no longer on the table.”

Louisiana has one of the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the United States, and, as of Wednesday afternoon, the state has 1,795 positive cases and 65 deaths.

As hospital beds quickly fill up, especially in New Orleans, the state began exploring moving "step-down" patients — people who are COVID-19 positive but aren't in critical condition — out of the hospitals and into other isolation facilities to recover, which would free up more hospital rooms and intensive care units for patients in urgent need.

Edwards said his office "cast a wide net" for possible facilities, and they shared the inventory information with medical officials and the National Guard to figure out "which would be the most desirable from a medical perspective."

The Governor's Office reached out to the UL System and Tulane University about their dorm rooms, and Southern University System spokeswoman Janene Tate said the Louisiana Board of Regents also inquired about their dorms.

UL System President Jim Henderson said the system would have about "15,000 to 20,000" available beds from its nine campuses to offer the state, although there are still 25% to 30% of students remaining across those campuses.

Ultimately, the state moved toward hotels, and Edwards said Wednesday that his office is also considering using the New Orleans convention center.

Michael Sawaya, the convention center's president and general manager, declined comment regarding plans with the state when contacted by phone Wednesday afternoon.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell confirmed Wednesday the convention center would be used as a step down facility, saying 3,000 patients could be housed there.

The state's decision comes a day after a housing initiative by a national hotel association started compiling a substantial list of hotels that are willing to partner with state governments to provide healthcare units.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association announced Tuesday that its "Hotels For Hope" initiative has identified over 6,500 hotels nationwide.

As of Wednesday afternoon, association spokeswoman Maura Morton said, just under 200 hotels in Louisiana joined the initiative, a number she said is expected to grow in the coming days.

The Governor's Office said Tuesday afternoon that Louisiana has 10,164 beds available, about 46% of its total, but has not released numbers on how many extra beds it needs.

A study by the Harvard Global Health Institute predicted that, under a worst-case scenario, Louisiana could find itself in need of more than 24,000 additional beds, a shortage that would require it to nearly quadruple its current capacity.

Louisiana's partnerships with hotels would include negotiations for payment contracts. Edwards did not outline a negotiation plan during his news conference Wednesday, and Ben Blackwell, the president of the Louisiana Hotel & Lodging Association, declined comment.

Chicago has also partnered with five local hotels, according to The Chicago Tribune, and is expected to have more than 1,000 rooms available for mildly ill patients. One hotel, according to the report, will cost Chicago about $1 million per month.

Staff writer Sam Karlin contributed to this story. 

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