Three things you need to know about Louisiana’s COVID-19 outbreak this week

Death Data, Unemployment Benefits, Elections

Gov. John Bel Edwards
Gov. John Bel Edwards (Photo by Wesley Muller)

White people have surpassed Black people in number of COVID-19 deaths

The number of white people dying from COVID-19 has surpassed Black victims. Louisiana has seen 2,081 people who are white die from the virus and 2,054 people who are Black die from the virus, according to data released by the Louisiana Department of Health.

But Black people are still disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They make up 49 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, though only 33 percent of the state’s total population. White people represent 63 percent of the state’s population, yet only 49 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

The racial disparity over deaths has improved over time. In April, Black people made up 70 percent of those who died from COVID-19, a little over a month into the pandemic.

People who are Black may have been dramatically affected earlier on in the pandemic because they tend to occupy more front-facing jobs, said Thomas LaVeist, dean of Tulane University’s public health school. People who are Black in New Orleans are more likely to hold hospitality jobs, for example, which meant they would have been more likely to interact with tourists and other members of the public at the beginning of the pandemic, he said. 

Governor anticipates higher unemployment benefits, he’s just not sure when

Gov. John Bel Edwards said about 450,000 people who are out of work in Louisiana are expected to receive $300 more in unemployment benefits each week, though he isn’t sure when that money will start to flow.

Louisiana will make those benefits retroactive until Aug. 1. It’s just not clear when the federal government will transfer the funding — which is coming from federal disaster relief accounts — to Louisiana yet. The state also needs to update its unemployment computer system so it can process about 200,000 of those unemployment payments.  

“It’s my hope and expectation that we will be able to make the computer fixes before the funding is available,” Edwards said Thursday. 

The extra funding will bump up unemployment to a maximum of $547 per week for those who qualify. Edwards said he believes people who are normally self-employed or contractors — sometimes referred to as “gig” workers — will qualify for the $300 weekly benefits, though they don’t traditionally get unemployment benefits. 

The federal government had previously been kicking $600 per week in unemployment — for a maximum of $847 per week in Louisiana — but those enhanced benefits ended in July. Since, people collecting unemployment have only been able to receive a maximum of $247 per week. 

The governor said tapping the disaster relief funding — which President Donald Trump proposed himself — is not a long-term solution to provide unemployment support. The money is only expected to last a few weeks. He urged Congress to pass a new COVID-19 relief package for states. 

Critics have questioned whether Trump’s plan to provide unemployment benefits using money set aside for disaster relief is constitutional, since Congress typically allocates money. Edwards said he was not concerned about the plan’s legality.

“I don’t know who would challenge it, certainly not the state of Louisiana because we are taking advantage of it,” the governor said.

Trump’s plan initially called for an additional $400 per week in unemployment benefits, but it required states to kick in $100 of that bill. Edwards said Louisiana cannot afford to provide the extra $100 per week in unemployment Trump had initially pushed.

Edwards is not backing more expansive mail-in voting for the fall elections

The governor said he hopes that Louisiana’s November and December elections — which feature the presidential race and congressional contests — work in a “substantially similar” way to the elections that took place this summer.

“It seems to me that it was successful. Maybe not what everybody would want, but I think it struck a reasonable balance in protecting people’s health and allowing them to vote and doing it in a way that could actually be administered here in Louisiana,” he said at a press conference Wednesday. 

Edwards, a Democrat, has not gotten behind a plan for widespread access to mail-in ballots, which several advocacy groups and civil rights organizations are pushing

In Louisiana, people can typically only request an absentee ballot if they meet a certain set of criteria — including being stationed overseas with the military, being over 64 years-old, or being out of town at the time of the election.

If the fall election plan is similar to the one used this summer, the only additional reasons someone could qualify for a mail-in ballot are if they had a medical condition that puts them at higher-risk for getting COVID-19, were in a medically-mandated quarantine, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a diagnosis, or caring for a person in quarantine. 

The process for approving a different fall election plan due to COVID-19  is complicated and potentially lengthy. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature’s two governmental affairs committees must agree to a new election plan. Then, the full Louisiana Legislature has to approve that election plan without making changes. Edwards is a Democrat, but Ardoin and most state lawmakers are Republicans.

Ardoin had initially wanted to provide more access to mail-in voting during this summer’s elections, but the Legislature pushed back on his first proposal. In the end, they reached a compromise which included some  of the new justifications for a mail-in ballot, but not all that Ardoin had suggested.