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An illustration created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the novel coronavirus dubbed COVID-19. 

Baton Rouge recorded its first two deaths from coronavirus over the weekend — a woman in her 40s who also suffered from an underlying medical condition and an elderly Mississippi man brought to the city for treatment.

The news of their deaths Monday came just hours before state officials announced a second cluster of cases had been discovered at a Donaldsonville retirement home. Both revelations highlight how quickly the virus is spreading across Louisiana while the testing process struggles to catch up, leaving the public with an incomplete picture of the problem even as local and state officials continue imploring residents to heed warnings and stay home. 

As statewide testing numbers have jumped in recent days, so have the number of confirmed cases. Data released Monday from the Louisiana Department of Health show almost 1,200 cases across the state, a significant increase over the day before. Those numbers include 43 cases in East Baton Rouge Parish and the new cluster at Chateau D'Ville, where officials have identified five infected residents. 

That's the second known cluster in the state, joining Lambeth House in New Orleans, which remains an epicenter of the virus in Louisiana. The state has confirmed 42 cases at the Lambeth House, including nine of Louisiana's 34 deaths caused by the virus. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Sunday a "stay at home" order for all state residents through April 12, saying Louisiana has the fastest growth rate of confirmed cases in the world and ranks third in the nation — behind New York and Washington State — in per capita cases.

The two people who died in Baton Rouge over the weekend had both been admitted to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center on March 15, two days before public health officials had even confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in Louisiana's capital city, authorities said. The patients had been tested for coronavirus but both died before the results came back.

Officials with Our Lady of the Lake and the Louisiana Department of Health refused to disclose when the tests were administered and why the results didn't come back until after the patients died, saying only that they were routed through Louisiana's state lab, which is supposed to have a quicker turnaround time than private ones — hours rather than days. The state tests are meant to be reserved for some of the most dire cases, patients who meet stricter requirements than those who might qualify for commercial testing, officials have said. 

East Baton Rouge Coroner Dr. Beau Clark announced the deaths in a virtual news conference Monday morning and said it is vital that people take precautions.

"I inform you of this because you have to understand the importance of keeping yourself safe during this time," he said. "We knew this day would come eventually because this virus is incredibly virulent — it's passed pretty aggressively and pretty rapidly among people. That's why social distancing is very important."

Clark did not release the identities of the two people who died. He said the Baton Rouge woman was 44 — younger than many of the people most affected by coronavirus — but she had an underlying health condition. Clark didn't reveal what the condition was, citing medical privacy laws.

He said the man from Mississippi was 90 years old and had been transferred to Our Lady of the Lake from a smaller hospital in his home state because he needed more acute care than the facility could provide.

It's standard procedure for patients in some small areas of neighboring states to be transferred to Louisiana's largest hospitals when needed. New research shows Louisiana is more prepared than many states to absorb an expected influx of critical care patients in the coming weeks and months, but would still need to almost triple its capacity and find space for nearly 16,000 more patients at a time under a worst-case scenario.

Clark reiterated what experts around the world have been saying: The vast majority of people who become infected will survive, but those with underlying conditions — including high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic lung illnesses — face a much higher risk of serious illness or death. 

Numbers released Monday from the Louisiana Department of Health show that as of Sunday, about 28 percent of coronavirus patients were experiencing symptoms serious enough to require hospitalization. That percentage has fallen in recent days since testing has ramped up through the use of private labs, allowing officials to loosen qualifications for people seeking tests. 

"Continue to do your part," Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome posted on her public Facebook page Monday morning. "We must all behave as if we may have coronavirus. Stay calm … stay aware but most of all stay apart."

The coroner's office is now investigating another recent Baton Rouge death to determine if it was also due to COVID-19. Officials said that person didn't present the most common symptoms associated with the virus: fever, cough and shortness of breath. Test results should be available in the next few days.

Clark said there's no way of knowing at this point exactly how many people who have died in recent weeks and months actually succumbed to the coronavirus before testing had started. Death investigators can't go back and investigate retroactively, so exact data will remain elusive. 

Plus the limited number of tests now available could force health officials to choose between testing someone who's already died and another patient still living, Clark said. That could also impact the data because it would be most prudent to use the tests to diagnose and treat the living, leaving cause of death in some cases unconfirmed. 

Advocate staff writers Sam Karlin, Youssef Rddad and David Mitchell contributed to this report.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.