Despite Louisiana’s coronavirus trends showing signs of improvement, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday signaled the state will likely remain in its modified Phase 2 of reopening — in which masks are mandatory and bars are largely shuttered — beyond next Friday when it is slated to expire.
Edwards said he’s encouraged by recent drops in hospitalized coronavirus patients, which have reached the lowest point in 10 days. And cases appear to be plateauing, with the weekly caseload rising by a slower clip.
Still, the state is nowhere near meeting the gating criteria outlined by the White House to which the governor said his administration is still adhering, along with a recent emphasis by federal officials on the share of tests coming back positive. That criteria involves sustained declines in cases, COVID-like illnesses and hospitalizations over two weeks, as well as a positive rate of less than 10%. The state currently does not meet the criteria on hospitalizations and cases, and the state doesn’t regularly report COVID-like illnesses.
“I do think the people of Louisiana ought to not expect that we’re going to be making major changes every two weeks,” Edwards said. “It seems like we’ve sort of settled in where we are. I don’t want people leaning forward thinking there’s going to be some major change. That doesn’t appear likely based on the most current data.”
Edwards typically announces the next phase of reopening — or more restrictions — a few days before his latest executive order is set to expire, which in this case is Aug. 7. This time, the decision will come after the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended for several weeks the state actually bolster restrictions, rolling back capacity for indoor dining, mandating masks and closing bars.
Louisiana was plowing through a phased reopening that began in May until cases started to tick upward in mid-June. Since then, cases have exploded, and hospitalizations of coronavirus patients have driven hospital leaders in Baton Rouge, Acadiana and Lake Charles to raise the alarm about being overwhelmed amid a staff shortage.
Even if the latest drops in hospitalizations and plateauing of cases turn into sustained trends for the state, masks will remain mandatory for some time, Edwards said. Several doctors who have appeared alongside the governor in recent weeks — including on Thursday Dr. G.E. Ghali, the chancellor of LSU Health Sciences Center Shreveport — have said masks will be part of a “new normal” until after there is a viable vaccine.
Ghali said the northwest part of the state is seeing increases in hospitalizations but not as acute as other parts of the state. His school is involved with a host of coronavirus testing initiatives, and he said that while it appears coronavirus at nursing homes in the region has been tamped down, “what we’ve not been good at is containing the community spread of this virus.”
Too many people are gathering in crowds and not abiding by the governor’s executive order, Ghali said, leading to a 12% to 15% rate of positive tests in the region, well above the federally recommended 10% threshold. He said it’s “ridiculous” to say people shouldn’t wear masks.
However, the Shreveport area has a “buffer” when it comes to hospitalizations, Ghali said. The region boosted surge capacity of ICU beds during the first wave of cases in April, which has led to a strong supply, though staffing remains an issue.
“We need nurses. There’s a huge nursing shortage to start out with,” Ghali said. “We could use another 100, 150 nurses easily.”
Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state's public health officer, said the health department may move forward with an effort to establish surge facilities inside existing hospitals that would act like the medical monitoring station at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, accepting patients who are well enough to leave the ICU.
Still, he said some hospitals dropped out of the potential program after facing shortages in staff. While two hospitals have expressed interest, he said the state likely will wait until it has a better grip on the virus before moving forward.
Edwards added that the Convention Center in New Orleans, which cost upwards of $165 million, is still the state's best resource for alleviating pressure at hospitals.
The Department of Corrections is amid a mass testing of inmates and staff, Edwards said, which uncovered 182 positive cases at Allen Correctional Center in Kinder, about 80% of which were from people who were asymptomatic.
At the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, almost 1,500 tests have been conducted, Edwards said. DOC spokesman Ken Pastorick said about 900 of those represented re-tests of inmates.
Pastorick said an outbreak at Allen discovered earlier this month prompted the mass testing at that facility.
After 11 bars in the Acadiana region sued Edwards and state Fire Marshal Butch Browning for banning in-person consumption at Louisiana bars, the governor said Thursday health professionals advised him some environments like bars are “so conducive to the spread of the coronavirus” they can’t be opened safely.
Those bar owners are being represented by Jimmy Faircloth, the former executive counsel to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who asked a judge in the U.S. Western District of Louisiana on Thursday to temporarily block enforcement of the governor’s order. Faircloth filed a companion lawsuit in the U.S. Eastern District, which covers New Orleans and surrounding areas, on behalf of 22 bars in that region.