After months of steady improvements and declining hospitalizations, Louisiana's fight against COVID-19 has stalled in recent weeks, worrying some public health officials that the state could be teetering on the edge of another deadly spike in coronavirus infections.
Though cases haven't yet shown signs of ticking upward in Louisiana, trendlines nationally have set off alarm bells from federal health officials. On Monday, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said she felt the "impending doom" of a fourth surge and President Joe Biden cautioned public officials against lifting restrictions.
The warnings come ahead of a Tuesday press conference during which Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to update the state's coronavirus rules. The previous order — which loosened restrictions on live music and inside capacity at bars — expires Wednesday.
The decision on whether to loosen up restrictions comes at a particularly precarious moment in the year-long pandemic: countless young people are returning home from Spring Break festivities and Easter gatherings are just around the corner. That combination could reignite infections, said Susan Hassig, an associate professor of epidemiology at Tulane University.
All adults are now eligible for the COVID vaccine in Louisiana as the state expects a record-high shipment of doses.
"A fair number of people who went to the beaches are going to be bringing home something other than a sunburn and a hangover,” Hassig said. “Louisiana doesn’t have virus impenetrable borders around it. As long as cases are trending upward in the United States, we are going to be vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, testing for the coronavirus in Louisiana has plummeted since mid-February, when an icy, winter storm closed down roadways and cut off power. There were roughly 85,000 tests completed over seven days ending Monday, a fraction of the 147,000 tests administered the week leading up to the Lundi Gras storm. That has made it more difficult to determine how much the virus is spreading.
New daily cases have seesawed between 200 and 500 since the beginning of March, though with the drop in testing, that's likely an undercount.
“Right now, I feel like we’re in fog with one-mile visibility,” Hassig said. “When we don’t think we have a good sense of what’s happening, that’s when we get nervous.”
The number of coronavirus patients in Louisiana's hospitals has steadily declined since the state reported a pandemic-high of 2,069 patients on Jan. 7 following a deadly post-holiday surge in cases. Several hospitals reported hitting milestones of admitting zero new coronavirus patients.
Still, hospitalizations are showing signs of leveling off. The was a record low of 359 patients reported over the weekend, with a slight increase to 362 patients on Monday, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health.
Nearly four months after coronavirus vaccinations began, Louisiana is seeing fewer people clamoring for the surging supply of shots, and that …
At Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, the number of hospitalizations with coronavirus last week got down to the mid-20s before bumping up slightly over the weekend. Dr. Catherine O'Neal, the hospital's chief medical officer, said it's too soon to say whether any trend will hold.
"We're on the precipice of going either way," O'Neal said. "If we continue to do well with masking and distancing and vaccinations, we could be in a really good spot. If we stall, and don't continue to vaccinate heavily, and do high risk things, we're going to have a big surge."
Cases of the virus are up about 10% nationally over the past week from the previous week, to about 60,000 cases per day, with both hospitalizations and deaths ticking up as well, said Dr. Walensky, director of the CDC. She warned that without immediate action the U.S. could follow European countries into another spike in cases and suffer needless deaths.
"We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope," Walensky said. "But right now, I'm scared. I'm going to lose the script, and I'm going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom."
More than 10,000 Louisianans are suspected to have died from COVID-19, including 54 people over the last seven days ending Monday, according to LDH data. There were 312 deaths reported during the second week of January, during the peak of the last surge that followed Christmas and New Years Eve.
Later Monday, Biden addressed the nation from the White House, declaring, "If we let our guard down now, we can see the virus getting worse, not better. People are letting up on precautions, which is a very bad thing."
Biden delivered a direct appeal to governors, state and local leaders to reinstate mask-wearing requirements if they have lifted them, and said he encouraged leaders to pause plans to further ease virus-related restrictions. Mississippi and Texas recently lifted their mask mandates, while Edwards decided to keep the Louisiana mandate in place.
"Please, this is not politics, reinstate the mandate if you let it down," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.