Gov. John Bel Edwards has formed a task force of top state officials dedicated to responding to the coronavirus that has begun spreading across the U.S., saying Monday that while there are currently no confirmed cases here, the spread of the virus to Louisiana is inevitable.
Speaking to reporters at the Press Club of Baton Rouge following a meeting of his emergency response team, the Unified Command Group, Edwards said about 40 people in Louisiana who recently traveled to areas affected by the novel coronavirus have been “isolating” themselves at home while they coordinate with state health officials. None of those people are showing signs of symptoms, and many have been released from the isolation following a 14-day period, the governor said.
“There is absolutely no need to panic,” Edwards said. “That is exactly the wrong thing to do. But we should all take this seriously, prepare for this and arm yourself with the facts."
Louisiana in recent days gained the ability to test for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, which has spread from China to a steadily-increasing number of countries and which officials said had claimed six lives in the U.S. as of Monday afternoon.
Louisiana’s Office of Public Health will test patients who meet certain criteria on behalf of providers. The state had tested at least one patient in Louisiana, whose results came back negative for the virus, over the weekend. If a patient tests positive, Edwards said he or another top state official will announce the state has its first “presumptive” positive case of the virus before sending the test to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for confirmation.
He cautioned people against turning to social media for information about the virus, saying they should look to the CDC or Louisiana Department of Health for guidance.
"When it comes to cases of coronavirus in Louisiana, if you have not heard it from the department of health, it is not real. Period."
Edwards joined a call with Vice President Mike Pence and other governors Monday to be briefed on the government’s response to the virus. That followed the Unified Command Group meeting, where a host of state officials discussed preparations for when the virus spreads to Louisiana – a meeting Edwards likened to preparing for a hurricane.
More than 100 cases of the virus have been confirmed in the U.S., among roughly 89,000 infected worldwide. The death toll was over 3,000 as of Monday.
The roughly 20 to 30 people who are currently isolating at home in Louisiana at the request of the state government are checking their temperature twice a day and receive a call from the state health department once a day, a Louisiana Department of Health spokeswoman said. None of the travelers returning to the state have refused the state’s request to self-isolate at home.
However, no one in Louisiana is under a “quarantine” for the virus, Edwards said.
LSU has sent out periodic updates to students about the coronavirus and last week said it was cancelling a program scheduled for China in the spring. The school does not currently have students in China, said LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard.
The state health department has been coordinating with federal health officials for weeks to prepare for the spread of the virus, and Edwards said the “immediate threat” in Louisiana and elsewhere in the U.S. is low, though the risk of exposure has grown because the virus is now spreading among people in the country.
Most people, about 80%, who get the coronavirus experience mild symptoms, Edwards said, while the elderly and people with a “compromised state of health” are most at risk of experiencing more severe symptoms.
State officials are advising people to get a flu vaccine, cover your cough, stay home if you’re sick and wash your hands, many of the same precautions taken to avoid getting the flu.
The governor said none of the planned conventions or festivals in Louisiana, especially in the tourism-heavy New Orleans area, have had talks of cancellation, calling it premature.
The Associated Press contributed to this report