BR.coronavirusjbe.031520_02_mw.JPG

Gov. John Bel Edwards announces the number of coronavirus cases in Louisiana has risen during a press conference at the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday, March 14.

Alarmed by the community spread of the new coronavirus that has made Louisiana a hotspot nationally for the pandemic and killed three so far, officials put in place a dizzying array of new restrictions on Monday that promise to disrupt life for virtually every citizen: ordering bars, gyms and casinos to close and banning gatherings of 50 or more.

The stunning move made by Gov. John Bel Edwards was the latest in a string of escalating restrictions that have been put in place continually since a week earlier, when the state discovered its first case. Among the institutions closed statewide are K-12 schools and movie theaters, and restaurants were limited to only delivery, take-out or drive through service.

New Orleans instituted its own list of restrictions Monday, banning all “public and private gatherings” and closing down businesses like shopping malls and live music venues. Edwards warned that even though the statewide changes are in place for a month, they will likely be extended by another month, in line with federal recommendations.

Even with the restrictions, officials warned that the infection will continue to spread rapidly through the state, and will kill many of those most at risk – the elderly and people with existing health issues.

“We will see people hospitalized at great rates with this infection in this state and we will see people die,” said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital.

The virus is almost certainly already present throughout Louisiana, Edwards said, even though officials had only confirmed its presence in 11 parishes Monday, including Ascension Parish’s first case.

With 136 cases of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, identified, Louisiana now has the third-highest rate per capita in the country. Thousands of people have tested positive across the U.S., with the infection detected in every state except West Virginia. Without the dramatic actions, officials warn Louisiana’s high rate of cases per capita mean the virus is on its way to roiling the state, infecting far more people than hospitals and other health systems can handle. If that happens, far more people will die, officials said.

“We know we are one of the hotspots across the country,” Edwards said. “That’s why we are doing this ... If we don’t want to be Italy in terms of this coronavirus outbreak and transmission, we better do things differently, we better do things better and we better do things earlier.”

As of Monday, officials said three people in Louisiana had died from the virus, the latest being an 84-year-old resident of the New Orleans retirement home Lambeth House – the state’s only known “cluster” of coronavirus cases, Edwards said.

The governor said he was concerned about the Lambeth House cluster because elderly and those with existing health conditions – categories under which all residents of the retirement home fall – are more at risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. He said everyone at the home with symptoms has been tested, and 12 residents had tested positive. He added his “fingers are crossed that the situation doesn’t get worse.”

Louisiana is implementing its restrictions largely based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, though the state had already banned visitation to nursing homes, prisons and taken some other steps last week.

The White House dramatically changed its tone about the virus Monday, conceding it did not have it under control and urging people to avoid social gatherings and take other precautions. Officials have repeatedly urged people to wash their hands, cover their cough and stay home if sick, among other things.

The governor joined a call with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other officials from across the country Monday. In his press conference following that call and a meeting of his emergency response team, Edwards called the situation a “rapidly evolving and escalating crisis.”

He added “we are all in agreement that mitigation measures need to be stepped up significantly and immediately here and around the country.”

Young people should also heed warnings about the virus, officials says. While most will not experience severe symptoms from the virus, young, healthy people can easily carry the virus to people at risk. About 80% who contract COVID-19 experience mild symptoms.

When the end date of April 13th for the restrictions approaches, Edwards said officials will evaluate whether to extend them. He also acknowledged the moves will “inconvenience hundreds of thousands across the state.”

“In all likelihood as we approach the 30 day period we will be extending these measures for at least another month,” Edwards said.

In partnership with the federal government, Louisiana is erecting three drive-through testing sites, with two in New Orleans and one in Jefferson Parish, Edwards said. Baton Rouge also opened a drive-through testing site. He is also activating 400 national guard troops to staff the testing sites and work at Bayou Segnette State Park, which is being transformed into a coronavirus isolation area, something Edwards said was aimed mainly at providing a safe place for homeless people who test positive for the virus.

The state has also started receiving test results from Labcorp, one of the commercial labs that is expected to ramp up COVID-19 testing across the country. Officials here have said the state will need the private sector to help ramp up testing. As of Monday, the only state-run lab able to test for the virus had tested 374 people.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com