Louisiana is set to start doling out supercharged unemployment benefits of $600 more a week on Monday, providing the first wave of relief to a staggering number of residents seeking aid as the coronavirus rocks the state’s economy.

But as benefits begin flowing and officials project no part of Louisiana is on track to run out of hospital beds or ventilators in the coming 10 days, Gov. John Bel Edwards warned Wednesday it will be a long time before things return to normal.

Until there is a vaccine and medication that can treat the virus – prospects that are months or longer away – Edwards said people will likely not see “life as you knew it before COVID-19.”

While at some point restrictions will be loosened, it remains unclear exactly what that will look like, Edwards said. The state will rely heavily on the federal government, and will need far more testing, along with contact tracing and isolation of patients who later test positive, he said.

“I promise you no matter what the timeline looks like, it’s going to be quicker if everyone follows the stay-at-home order,” the governor said.

In the meantime, as Louisiana’s stay-at-home order is set to keep thousands of businesses closed until at least April 30th, the Louisiana Workforce Commission will start paying out the extra $600-a-week benefit to unemployed Louisiana workers starting Monday, Edwards said.

The scope of Louisiana’s coronavirus-induced economic crisis is unprecedented, as reflected by sobering statistics provided by the governor. From March 1 to April 4th, 227,000 people filed for unemployment.

For the entire year of 2019, only 103,000 people filed for unemployment benefits, Edwards said.

The new money, which comes from a $2.2 trillion federal aid package recently passed by Congress, will come on top of Louisiana’s relatively meager state benefit, a maximum of $247 a week. And in a change from normal practice, gig workers, contractors and self-employed people will be able to tap into the $600 benefit.

The huge number of people filing for unemployment has overwhelmed Louisiana’s state offices, and Edwards suggested people file online between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. to try to get through.

The move comes as Louisiana experiences what officials hope is the start of the state “flattening the curve,” or slowing the number of coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations. The state saw its fourth-straight day of decreasing numbers of people on ventilators, due partly to hospitals keeping more patients off the machines than initially thought. The number of people hospitalized fell for the first time, though Edwards noted the number of patients under investigation at hospitals is high. The hospitalization data is a bright spot, he indicated.

Still, the state recorded 70 deaths for a second straight day on Wednesday, the highest daily number recorded, and Edwards noted the trajectory of deaths is still high and doesn’t match up with what officials would expect to see as other numbers improve. The state had confirmed 652 deaths related to the virus.

A disproportionate number of those deaths – about 70% – are African Americans, and Edwards brought Dr. Corey Hebert, the chief medical officer at Dillard University, to address the gulf at his press conference Wednesday.

Hebert said black people not only are more likely to have underlying health conditions than other races, but also receive less preventative care. And as the state continues to urge people to stay home and practice social distancing, Hebert said it is important to have representative voices making that call.

“People know what they need to do,” he said. “They need to be inspired to move and do them.”

He also credited the governor with expanding Medicaid to cover nearly half a million more Louisiana residents, without which the state would be in a much more “dire circumstance.”

In all, Louisiana has confirmed about 17,000 cases, an increase of 746 on Wednesday. That came as the state received 6,751 new tests for the virus.

As the New Orleans area sees improvement in the number of people hospitalized and on ventilators, Edwards said officials are keeping a close watch on the Baton Rouge region, along with the river parishes and Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, as well as northwest Louisiana.

“We’re watching the entire state,” Edwards said. “We want to make sure everybody is trending in the right direction ... Some areas of the state are behind others.”

Numbers in the Capital area are “slightly less alarming,” he said. But New Orleans was hit hard with the virus early, and other parts of the state could see a later peak, though they will benefit from restrictions being put into place earlier in the outbreak. He said while nowhere in Louisiana is currently on track to run out of ventilators of hospital beds in the next 10 days, he can’t say anywhere has avoided it entirely yet.

The state is setting up a testing site at a Shreveport-area Walmart and is sending 45 ventilators to the region, Edwards said. Officials are standing up a similar testing site in LaPlace, in St. John the Baptist Parish, which has the dubious distinction as the No. 1 place in the country for deaths per capita.

Edwards said a Carnival Cruise Ship was set to dock in its home port of New Orleans Wednesday evening and drop off 300 crew members who will take buses to the old airport terminal to take chartered flights home. Those crew were on board with an unspecified number of people who tested positive for the virus, who will stay on board unless they need hospitalization, in which case they will go to New Orleans hospitals.

Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the governor, said “several hundred” people will remain on the ship.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com