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University Medical Center employees erect a tent by the Emergency Entrance which will allow increased space for evaluating people seeking traditional emergency care and evaluation for potential Covid 19 symptoms in New Orleans, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. The UMC emergency has the capability to see over 300 patients in a 24-hour period. The tent is scheduled to operational Thursday afternoon. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday issued a dire warning about the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Louisiana: Without a change in the trajectory of the virus, it could overwhelm the state’s ability to provide health care in short order.

Officials said everything is on the table as they scramble to boost the number of health care workers, hospital beds and equipment like masks and ventilators to prepare for a rising tide of cases, as the death toll rose to 10 and the number of detected cases shot to nearly 400 statewide.

“This is early, but our trajectory is basically the same as what they had in Italy,” Edwards said during a news conference in Baton Rouge. “And if there’s anything I said today that ought to get people’s attention, it’s that.”

During a phone call with President Donald Trump and many of the nation’s governors, Edwards gave Louisiana a grim prognosis under a “worst-case scenario” – parts of the state would run out of resources to provide health care in seven to 10 days without help from the federal government. He called that trend his “biggest concern,” and asked for federal help, like permission to surge patients into the federally-run Veterans Affairs hospital in New Orleans.

Edwards, who declined to provide the data he and state officials are using to model the track of the virus in Louisiana, called the initial figures “sobering,” and said they indicate the state is running short on time to increase its capacity for things like hospital beds, ventilators and health care workers.

Between the state’s steep restrictions on face-to-face contact and an expansion of testing for the virus, officials hope that that state can “flatten the curve” to avoid running out of staff, beds and equipment. To do so, officials are working to find more resources – including hard-to-find ventilators that most of those who are hospitalized for the coronavirus need.

He also again pointed to the rate of cases Louisiana has compared to its population, which is among the highest in the U.S., though the scope of the problem is still obscured by a lack of testing. The Louisiana Department of Health reported 392 confirmed cases Thursday across 26 parishes. The New Orleans area, the epicenter of Louisiana’s outbreak, had the most cases, with 249 in Orleans Parish and 69 in Jefferson Parish. Among the new deaths Thursday was a 44-year-old Orleans Parish resident with underlying health conditions.

The state’s only known “cluster” of cases, at the New Orleans retirement facility Lambeth House, saw its number of confirmed cases shoot up to 23, with four deaths. A fifth resident's death was reported Thursday, but his test for coronavirus hadn't come back yet.

Some hospitals in Louisiana have begun sounding the alarm about a potential shortage of equipment if the number of patients soars, as officials expect.

In New Orleans, hospitals are shifting around staff to prepare for the rising tide of cases. Tulane Health System said it would close the emergency room at Tulane Lakeside Hospital in order to move more doctors and staff to its hospital campus downtown to get ready for a surge in coronavirus patients.

Edwards said finding ventilators is “particularly challenging” – in part because every other state in the country is also looking for the vital equipment. After ordering health providers to delay elective procedures, the state hopes ventilators that would have been used for those procedures can be used for COVID-19 patients, and is seeking to buy more.

Edwards also called on industrial firms to donate masks that are typically used in plants to the state, which plans to distribute them to health care workers.

Louisiana has dramatically stepped up its restrictions in recent days to combat the spread of the coronavirus here. Edwards ordered K-12 schools, bars, casinos, gyms and movie theaters to close. He limited restaurants to take-out, delivery and drive-through. He banned gatherings of 50 or more.

Even with those restrictions in place, the governor has indicated a shelter-in-place order may be necessary for some cities if the numbers don’t change.

“I am reasonably certain that if we had compliance by the people of Louisiana to the maximum extent we certainly wouldn’t need to have additional mitigation measures put in place,” he said, urging people to conduct themselves like they have the coronavirus.

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Louisiana officials still don’t have a clear picture of the crisis here, because testing has been so limited. The only state-run lab has tested 899 people, along with an unknown number of commercial lab tests that are expected to surge in the coming days, bringing a tidal wave of new positive coronavirus cases. The state Health Department has so far not provided data on commercial lab testing.

That means the modeling done by the state is weighted toward those who are sicker and in hospitals, said Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the Office of Public Health. That’s why the projection offered up by Edwards is a worst-case scenario.

With testing expanding to more people, hopefully the number of cases here compared to the state’s health capacity won’t be as dire because a significant share of those people will be able to isolate at home. Edwards’ administration declined to provide the data currently being used to build the models.

Billioux said the restrictions put in place on schools, bars and other facets of daily life will take some time to show up in the numbers. In the meantime, the state is looking at every avenue for finding more beds, equipment and staff, he said.

“Everything is on the table as we are discussing these things,” he said, adding college dorms, shuttered hospitals and campsites could be used to house people with the virus.

Louisiana only discovered its first case of the coronavirus less than two weeks ago. In that time, the steps taken by state leaders to slow its spread has ripped through the state’s economy, causing mass layoffs in the hospitality sector.

So many people have filed for unemployment and food stamps that Edwards brought the leaders of those agencies to his press conference Thursday to tell people how to handle the process, as high application volumes crash their websites and fill up their phone lines.

Last Tuesday, 1,000 people applied for food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, said Marketa Walters, head of the Department of Children and Family Services. This Tuesday, that number tripled to 3,000.

Likewise with unemployment, where laid-off workers can get a maximum of $247 a week, people have flooded to the program. Last week, 1,700 people filed claims for the entire week, said Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

This week, as businesses across the state shut their doors, 30,000 people filed claims, she said.

“We are experiencing high call volume,” Dejoie said, adding people should call in the middle of the night or early in the morning to get through.

The state has tapped National Guard troops and other law enforcement to staff drive-thru testing sites in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish that are set to open Friday, as well as overflow isolation areas and other facilities.

Nearly 240 soldiers and airmen with the Louisiana National Guard have been activated statewide to assist with the response to the virus, Sgt. First Class Denis Ricou said. More than 100 of those are helping set up testing facilities at three locations – Armstrong Park and the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena and the Alario Center in Westwego – and will be on hand to assist with testing, traffic control and other tasks that are needed once they are up and running, Ricou said.

Others are providing medical support or helping local authorities evaluate buildings that could be used to temporarily house patients if hospitals reach their capacity, Ricou said.

Staff writers Emily Woodruff, Jeff Adelson, Tyler Bridges, Blake Paterson, John Simerman and Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed to this story.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com