The Center Building... 01/24/03

The Center Building on the grounds of East Louisiana State Hospital is now part of the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health Systems in Jackson. The Greek Revival building was constructed in 1852.

Cases of the novel coronavirus have nearly doubled in East Feliciana Parish since Aug. 23, while neighboring West Feliciana Parish had the second fastest growth in the Baton Rouge area over the same period, state health data show.

But officials in the Felicianas said the state's numbers don't tell the true story of the virus's spread on the rural fringes of Baton Rouge because the vast majority of cases, they said, has happened at state-run prisons and other large, state-run congregant settings.

They include Dixon Correctional Institute, Louisiana Veterans Home and the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System facilities, all based in Jackson in East Feliciana, and Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in West Feliciana.

The sprawling operations have hundreds to thousands of residents and hundreds more employees. State data show that each has had many cases since the viral outbreak emerged in the state in early March.

West Feliciana Parish President Kenny Havard called the current presentation of the data, lumped under one parish total, "just disingenuous at the very least."

He argued the state ought to separate case and death data in those facilities from the parishwide tallies because the cumulative numbers are creating false impressions about a region reliant on visitor dollars for their economic well-being and causing unnecessary fear in the community.

"It's not fair to the community. It's not fair to the state. It's not fair to anybody," Havard said.

West Feliciana Parish has seen a 31% increase in cases since Aug. 23.

Havard, who was previously a two-term Republican state representative from St. Francisville for both parishes, has chafed, at times, with some of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' economic and social distancing restrictions. Havard emphasized that he wasn't alleging the case numbers are being inflated, just that they aren't being clearly presented. 

"They need to be more clear about how they report them, and what's accurate and who's incarcerated and who's not. That's easy to do," he added.

West Feliciana has had 611 cases since the outbreak began and more than 60% have been inmates at Angola, according to state health and corrections data.

The major state-run operations in Jackson, the Louisiana Veterans Home, Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System and Dixon Correctional, have had a combined 854 cases among its residents or patients.

That's nearly two-thirds of all cases in East Feliciana since the outbreak began, which had 1,328 cumulative cases through Friday, state statistics show.

Joseph Moreau, homeland security director in East Feliciana, said his parish has just a handful of community cases each day.

"We average three a day, sometimes four," he said.

The large share of overall cases represented by state-run congregant facilities in the two Felicianas is almost a reversal of recent statewide trends, where 80% to 85% or more new cases have come from community spread, not group facilities.

Havard said his attempts to inform Edwards and health officials about the perception problem have led to no change. State health officials only break out the share of cases in community and in congregant settings statewide. 

In a response Friday, state health officials did not directly address Havard's contentions, but Susan Hassig, a Tulane University epidemiologist, defended the rationale for including numbers from congregant settings in overall parish case numbers.

Often people in the community work in these facilities and can serve as a "bridge" for transmitting the virus back and forth between those facilities and the broader community, she said.

"It's not numbers that are directly grounded in the community, but it's relevant to the community, and the community needs to know that there's a problem there, so that hopefully they will be more circumspect in their behavior," she said.

In East Feliciana, 188 cases have been detected among employees at the veterans home and the mental health hospital since the outbreak began, state statistics show.

State case counts are based on where people reside, however, so it's not clear how many of those employees live in the parish and also contribute to the parish's overall case total, though it's likely at least some do.

During the recent sharp increase in cases in East Feliciana, the rural parish of 19,300 people has seen its daily case count break 130 new cases for a day three times, sending the daily, average per capita rate of cases to more than 10 times the regional rate, an Advocate analysis shows.

The 84% rise in cases in the East Feliciana since Aug. 23 has coincided with a recent outbreak at the veterans home and a major testing effort at Dixon Correctional, spokespersons for those facilities confirmed.

Brandee Patrick, spokeswoman for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, said that while residents in the long-term veterans homes have been tested for more than three months, the Jackson facility has its first positive case on Aug. 14. 

Since then, the home has added 35 more positive cases among its residents through Friday, and 26 cases among its employees. Five residents have recovered and four have died, she said.

The state Department of Corrections also began mass testing at Dixon Correctional Institute on Aug. 20. Throughout the outbreak, 563 inmates had tested positive by Friday and 70% of those positives have come since Aug. 26, according to state dashboard data. More than 90% of the inmates are asymptomatic.   

Earlier in the pandemic, the state mental hospital and related facilities saw a run of cases and deaths that had helped boost East Feliciana's case numbers. The system has had 255 cases among its patients and 162 cases among its staff, with 10 patients dying since the virus hit the state.

That outbreak has eased considerably. Through Tuesday, the facilities had just 10 active cases left among the staff after testing and stepped up precautions, state health officials said.

All other parishes in the 12-parish Baton Rouge area haven't broken 10% growth in cases since Aug. 23; East Baton Rouge was at 5.5%, state data show.

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