Louisiana's efforts to fight the coronavirus — particularly mask-wearing and social distancing — are saving lives, a top White House health official said during a visit to LSU Wednesday.

Birx, a renowned infectious disease doctor who reports to Vice President Mike Pence on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, met with LSU leaders and Gov. John Bel Edwards for a series of morning roundtables to discuss how the school and state are managing the virus, as well as to gather information on what steps the nation's colleges are taking.

Birx said there is evidence Edward's order requiring masks in public places has driven down new cases since it went into effect in July.

"Louisiana made changes that saved people's lives," she said. "We've learned from Louisiana that masks work."

Health officials found significant drops in coronavirus cases collected from wastewater, a method used to identify hotspots, Birx said.

Louisiana has had one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the country since the pandemic intensified in March and rocked rural and urban areas alike in the early spring and then in the summer months.

Though new cases have gradually declined after a second spike in infections this summer, the latest Louisiana Department of Health figures still show many parishes have high rates of infections.

Some parishes on Wednesday, including Iberville Parish, recorded low enough positivity rates in testing that bars would be allowed to reopen, months after Edwards ordered them to close when cases tied to bars steeply rose this summer.

With flu season starting and schools and colleges resuming in-person classes, Birx cautioned against loosening restrictions.

"Louisiana is getting there, but we’ll have to continue. How fast we get there is completely up to us,” she said. "I know people are getting tired of this, but we need to get through this fall."

State lawmakers are also set to return to Baton Rouge later this month for a special session to take up relief efforts following Hurricane Laura, unemployment and the governor's emergency orders, which has drawn sharp criticism from some lawmakers who’ve called for earlier reopening of businesses and resuming other activities.

John Bel Edwards chides Legislature on effort to curb his coronavirus rules in special session

Edwards said Wednesday his mandates have been effective in blunting the virus’s spread in the state while touching on comments Birx made about the effectiveness of his social distancing mandates.

“It isn’t like you can have an economy fully open with a virus running rampant,” he said. “That just isn’t going to work.”

Wednesday's meeting came weeks after students returned to LSU and other colleges and ahead of the start of the SEC football season this weekend. Attendance will be capped at 25% inside Tiger Stadium and no tailgating is allowed outside.

"Do not come on this campus not wearing your mask, do not be at bars, and don't create your own bar situation in your hotel room," she said. "This is really important for all of us to take these precautions going into Saturday."

Universities across the country have struggled to contain the virus, which mainly spreads person to person through respiratory droplets, during in-person fall semesters.

The latest report from LSU shows some 829 staff, students and faculty reported testing positive for the virus since mid-August.

Weekly reported cases have been declining since its highest week in late August, when 182 cases were reported. But the timing of when a person tested positive and whether they were on campus isn't reflected in the data.

LSU Interim President Tom Galligan said Wednesday the school plans to enforce distancing measures "persuasively and gently, but if we have to go beyond persuasive and gentle, we'll do so."

He added that he'd like to see more testing done on campus, and may consider mandatory testing.

"The biggest takeaway I think was something we already knew: "We need our community to get tested," Galligan said. "We need to have more robust testing, we need more numbers."


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad