Louisiana lawmakers need to acknowledge that COVID-19 is still with us

Their rush to end health restrictions ignores the ongoing crisis

A line of people in New Orleans seeking free COVID-19 testing wraps around the block in this photo from June 30. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

When Republican members of the Louisiana House Health, Education and Welfare committee argued with two of the state’s top public health experts Wednesday, they were illustrating the contempt much of the American public has developed for experts and their expertise. Jimmy Guidry, the state public health officer, and Joseph Kanter, the assistant state health officer, are both doctors. Kanter also has a masters degree in public health. They told the committee that we’re still in a serious crisis and — what’s worse  — that we may not have seen the worst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

But skeptical lawmakers pushed for more fans at football games, fewer restrictions on K-12 campuses and unfettered access to restaurants and bars. One lawmaker even suggested letting the public, including the state’s children, catch COVID-19 to help the state reach “herd immunity.”

Rep. Ray Crews, a retired airline pilot from Bossier City who runs an aerial mapping company, was the one suggesting to the two public health officials that it’s in Louisiana’s best interests to let the children get sick.  While it’s true that children have been shown to have a remarkably low mortality rate from COVID-19, the idea of letting them catch a disease that still has the potential to kill them is shockingly cruel and inhumane.

Calling Crews’ idea “disastrous,” Kanter said, “There is not one professional, medical or public health society that agrees with that viewpoint.” There was a time when a response such as that would have ended the debate and caused the person with no knowledge of the matter to fold. But what use is there for experts anymore? What’s the point of having professionals who spend years of intense study and practice in a particular field — and who must submit any research they conduct for review by other experts — when there’s Google and cable television talking heads to confirm everything we think we know?

Guidry, a board certified pediatrician who was previously the director of Adolescent Services at LSU School of Medicine, has 42 years of professional medical experience. Kanter is a former New Orleans health director and received both his medical degree and masters of public health degree from Tulane University. And yet, at Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers with zero experience in medicine or public health and who were bringing little more to the table than a love of football, told the experts what the state’s response should be.

“I’m not trying to speak for anybody else, but for a lot of the smaller towns, a lot of the smaller schools, football is more like a way of life,” said Rep. Chris Turner, a Ruston Republican who owns a pharmacy and serves in community relations for a bank.

Football could very well become a way of death if fans are allowed to pack the stands in the way they’re accustomed to doing. The state has implemented rules that limit seating to 25 percent of a venue’s capacity. Crews, the lawmaker who argued that herd immunity should be a goal, called the state’s 25 percent cap arbitrary. He said allowing football stadiums to be filled to 80 percent capacity “would make my constituents happier.”    

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between those lawmakers’ approach and the approach of the state’s health officials. The legislators are trying to keep their constituents happy. The public health officials are trying to keep those same folks alive and uninfected but they concede that even with the restrictions in place the virus will accompany fans to games. “You will have COVID in that crowd (of an LSU or Saints game),” Kanter said. “It may spread. It may not spread. That’s the essence of the risk. How do you allow for the event in a way that is as safe as possible?”

The theme of Wednesday’s meeting — and, more generally, the theme of the special session that began Monday — seems to be that everything is fine now, the virus is behind us and it’s time for Louisiana to get back to normal. Republican lawmakers are embracing both a laissez faire and a laissez les bons temps rouler approach.

Maybe Thursday night’s bombshell news that President Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19 will be the wake-up call the state’s Republicans need to acknowledge that this is not the time for the state (or the country) to let things take their course or to let the good times roll. Acting like COVID-19 isn’t a thing or is behind us or isn’t that big a deal has consequences.

Kanter told lawmakers that Louisiana is where it is now because of the public health restrictions that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration put in place. Those restrictions, it needs to be pointed out, were mostly put in place over the objections of the state’s Republicans.

“When you’re doing the right things, when my colleagues are performing at the top of their game, no one recognizes it because viruses are kept at bay,” Kanter said. “And you forget the reason they’re kept at bay is because we’re doing the right things. And when you stop doing the right things, then all of a sudden people recognize what your job was.”

But some lawmakers continue to insist that the restrictions have been problematic, going so far as to argue that people should be allowed to put themselves in danger of catching COVID-19 if that’s what they want to do.

Rep. Michael Echols, a Repubican who serves as business director for a health plan in Monroe, said if Louisiana lets residents smoke — when the habit kills 7,200 people a year — then the more than 5,300 COVID-19 deaths in the state doesn’t justify restrictions on entering bars and restaurants. We should let people do whatever they want, Echols said.

Multiple jurisdictions across the state of Louisiana have banned smoking in workplaces — including bars and restaurants — so that people who choose to smoke harm nobody’s lungs but their own. But there’s no way to keep COVID-19 confined to the careless crowds. If the careless catch it, that carelessness will surely lead to them passing it on to the careful.

“I predict there’s going to be another spike,” Guidry told lawmakers. And it’s going to be in flu season, and it’s going to be as much, if not more than what we saw in the spring.”

Who do Louisianians trust more to be in charge if Guidry’s dire prediction holds true? The experts who have put in place restrictions that have been shown to work? Or the politicians who’ve consistently fought against those restrictions and put prize public happiness over public health?