As Louisiana experienced the largest one-day surge in coronavirus cases since the height of the outbreak in early April, state health officials raised the alarm about worsening numbers and urged people to take precautions to limit the spread.

In the past seven days, Louisiana has averaged more new cases, 775, than at any point since the week ending April 13, when the state was in the middle of a stay-at-home order aimed at slowing the spread of the virus enough to avoid overwhelming hospitals. The 1,356 new cases confirmed Tuesday was the most since April 7th.

Louisiana is testing more people now compared to earlier this spring, when the virus raged through greater New Orleans and elsewhere. But officials on Tuesday pointed to concerning data that could spell the beginning of new trends.

The rate of positive tests compared to total tests has ticked up, from under 5% in the first phase of reopening that began in mid-May to 6.84% last week, according to Health Department data. And the amount of confirmed coronavirus in the state is growing again at a faster clip. 

The number of coronavirus patients in the hospital has risen for five days straight statewide, from 554 to 646, erasing the state’s gains in June for hospitalizations.

Once a national hotspot, the greater New Orleans region is experiencing slightly better trends than other regions, like Acadiana. Still, Dr. Joseph Kanter, the regional medical director for Region 1, which includes New Orleans, said the amount of coronavirus in the region is still high enough to cause concern.

“It’s like a slow-burning fire,” Kanter said. “It may be contained, but it’s not extinguished and it really doesn't take much to ignite it further.”

Kanter said increases in hospitalized cases is a “strong signal” that the virus is spreading. Young people, ages 18-29, have started contributing a greater share to the state’s total, in part because they’re likely contracting the virus at a higher rate and in part because more testing is available to them than early on. But Kanter noted that the rise in hospitalizations are mostly not 18-29-year-olds, and that officials believe young people will spread the virus to older and sicker cohorts.

Jefferson Parish has recently driven much of the growth in cases in the New Orleans region, Kanter noted, but he said the virus “does not respect any boundaries.” For instance, some of the cases confirmed at Tigerland bars in Baton Rouge were Jefferson Parish and Orleans Parish residents.

The dramatic spike in cases comes a day after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the state would not move into Phase 3 of reopening on Friday, when the Phase 2 order was set to expire. Instead, the state will remain in Phase 2--where restaurants, retailers, barber shops and other businesses are limited to 50% capacity – for another four weeks, in an effort to get a better handle on rising cases.

According to the Louisiana Department of Health, last week the state saw the third-highest rise in cases on record, behind only the first two weeks in April. The vast majority, 95%, of Tuesday’s increase in cases is tied to “community spread,” instead of congregate settings like nursing homes and prisons. And 97% of the cases are from infections where the specimen was collected between Jun 15 and June 23, which the Health Department said means the increase was not tied to a “backlog,” which have plagued case data in recent weeks.

About 7.6% of total tests came back positive Tuesday, which the Health Department said is below a goal of 10%. But the rate is uneven across the state. The Acadiana health region saw a rate of about 12%, while the New Orleans region had a 6.3% rate and greater Baton Rouge had 6.7%.

State health officials say it’s difficult to pin the rise in cases to specific events, though the state has confirmed some high-profile outbreaks, like one at Tigerland bars where more than 100 were infected and others at graduation parties in New Orleans. But officials have not tied the rising caseload to protests against police brutality, which brought thousands outside in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and elsewhere.

Dr. Dawn Marcelle, the state’s medical director for the Baton Rouge region, said any event where people are not distancing from one another or wearing masks poses a risk of spread. But she said it’s not clear whether the rising cases are from reopening businesses, people taking beach trips, protests or something else.

“I think it’s a combination of factors,” she said. “I don’t think it’s any one thing.”

While Baton Rouge and New Orleans have seen slight upticks in hospitalizations and other metrics recently, the Acadiana region on Tuesday continued to see an alarming rise.

The 354 new cases in the Acadiana region far outpaced the state’s eight other health regions, representing more than a quarter of new cases across Louisiana. That represented an 11% positive rate, above a federal guideline of 10%.

Marcelle also noted that many in the Baton Rouge region aren’t wearing masks, echoing concerns that health officials have statewide. Health experts have urged people to wear face coverings when in public to reduce the spread of particles from the person wearing the mask. Marcelle implored members of the public to wear a face covering--over their nose--to help limit the spread of the virus.

“This is not party politics,” Marcelle said. “This is public health.”

Staff writers Ben Myers and Jeff Adelson contributed to this report. 


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com