Gov. John Bel Edwards will extend the state’s current coronavirus restrictions — including its face covering mandate, 50-person gathering cap and bar closures — for an additional two weeks Friday. The limitations, commonly referred to as “Phase 2”, will now go until Aug. 7, the day after Louisiana’s public school students are scheduled to resume classes.
The governor’s announcement was not unexpected. The state continues to see a rise in COVID-19 cases across Louisiana. Around 2.08 percent of Louisiana residents have been infected with COVID-19 since the pandemic started, the second highest rate of any state in the country. Only New York state — with a rate of 2.1 percent — has seen more cases per capita, according to the governor.
“We are very close to being number one,” he said at a press conference Tuesday. “Community spread is still a major problem throughout Louisiana.”
Coronavirus hospitalizations are a concern. Louisiana reported over 1,500 on Tuesday — the highest number since May 3 — and they continue to climb in all regions of the state.
Two communities — Lafayette and Lake Charles — are seeing almost double the number of hospitalizations they experienced earlier on in the pandemic.
“We have clearly turned a corner in the wrong direction,” on hospitals, said Alex Billoux, the head of the state’s public health agency.
Billoux said some hospitals are restricting the types of patients they see so they can reserve capacity for coronavirus. Specifically, they are limiting surgeries that might require people to stay in an intensive care unit. Hospitals are also having trouble keeping up with the people coming to their emergency rooms. They are having to send some folks seeking treatment to neighboring facilities.
The governor said the state can tamp down on its coronavirus infection by adhering to the restrictions he has put in place, particularly the mandate to wear a face covering in public. The “Phase 2” limitations also require many types of businesses — from restaurants and casinos to gyms and salons — to operate at a maximum of 50 percent of their occupancy.
Schools are also affected. In Phase 2, school groups are limited to 25 individuals and school buses can only operate at 50 percent occupancy, under guidelines passed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Band practices with wind instruments and activities that involve singing cannot take place indoors. Some contact sports — including football — are not allowed to play games and face restrictions on practice activities, according to guidelines from the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.
But the governor and Billoux were reluctant to comment on what strategy they thought school districts should use when campuses open in early August. At Tuesday’s press conference, Billoux mentioned that the Centers for Disease Control has not released new school opening guidelines yet.
“It’s too early to say from my perspective what our recommendation would be,” he said.
“Is it safe for schools to operate in general? You know there’s just not an easy answer to that,” said Billoux, a medical doctor. “By and large, kids are probably safe. The challenge, as you noted, is kids have to be around teachers and they go home to caregivers – adult caregivers.”
Several school districts appear to be at least contemplating putting off in-person instruction. New Orleans public schools announced Tuesday that it would only do virtual learning in August and not resume face-to-face classes until September at the earliest. East Baton Rouge schools are expected to make a similar announcement later in the week.
The governor said he would be meeting with school districts and school leaders over the next two weeks ahead of their reopening.
Louisiana is gearing up for a surge in sicker patients overall. Edwards and Billoux said the state is pursuing contracts for medical personnel outside the state to come in and help with coronavirus treatment. Some hospitals are currently concerned about their staffing levels.
The governor said he’s requested the Federal Emergency Management Agency extend him contracts for medical staff, but he hasn’t received an answer yet. Edwards said it has become more difficult to get medical assistance from elsewhere in the country since so many states are dealing with rising coronavirus infections.
“Medical professionals are needed where they are,” he said. “It’s hard to get them to Louisiana.”
Louisiana sought outside medical help earlier this year when its hospitalization rates were rising, but Billoux said there is a better understanding about how to treat patients now. That should help with hospital capacity. People suffering from coronavirus are less likely to have gone on a ventilator and often have a shorter hospital stay than they would have had a few months ago, he said.