COVID-19 Timeline: With over a half-million vaccinated, Louisiana starts second year of pandemic

Significant dates and events related to COVID-19 in Louisiana

By: - March 16, 2021 12:15 pm
COVID-19 flags

Gov. John Bel Edwards put 9,758 white flags on the lawn of the Louisiana Capitol Monday — one for each person killed by COVID-19 in the state. (Photo by Julia O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)

With more than a half-million vaccinated against COVID-19 in Louisiana as of Monday, the state entered its second year of battling the coronavirus pandemic on a more hopeful tone.

The state gained significant ground in its inoculation effort with the addition of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine early this month and after access to the vaccine suddenly expanded a week ago when Gov. John Bel Edwards made everyone over age 16 with one of 12 qualifying health conditions — including hypertension, asthma or high body mass index — eligible for the vaccine. 

The number of vaccinated Louisianans exceeded the number of infected Louisianans last week, a year after the Louisiana Department of Health confirmed the state’s first case of the novel coronavirus. And on Sunday, Edwards marked the anniversary of the state’s first death due to the virus by declaring a day of prayer. Last week, his staff began filling the lawn of the Louisiana Capitol with a small white flag for each Louisianan killed by the virus during the previous 12 months. So far, 9,884 small white flags have been planted into the grass.

“Better days are ahead,” State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said at last week’s press conference. “To have these three vaccines available right now is an absolute gift.”

Also, with positivity rates continuing to decline, on Friday the Louisiana Department of Health expanded visitation options at nursing homes and other congregate care facilities.  

On Wednesday, the governor marked the anniversary of his March 11 emergency declaration by tweeting: “One year ago today, I declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 in Louisiana. It’s been a difficult year in many ways, but every day we get closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve faced this pandemic together and we’ll get past it together too.”

Here is a chronological timeline of significant dates and events related to COVID-19 in Louisiana:

Jan. 21 — The first case in the U.S. is detected in Washington state.

March 9 — The Louisiana Department of Health confirms the state’s first case of Covid-19.

March 11 — Gov. Edwards declares a state of emergency due to the virus.

March 13 — This is perhaps the date that most residents remember as the start of the pandemic. It was a Friday afternoon when many school children stopped what they were doing to listen to an announcement over their classroom intercom that Gov. Edwards ordered schools closed for the next 30 days. His order would officially take effect the following Monday. He also banned gatherings of more than 250 people and granted Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s request to push upcoming elections in April and May to June and July.

What was it that caused health officials to sound the alarm and prompt the governor to take such bold action? The virus had spread from the country’s West Coast — the first case was detected on Jan. 21 in Washington state — and reached Louisiana just six weeks later.  On March 9, the Louisiana Department of Health confirmed the state’s first case of Covid-19. Then on March 13, the health department reported 33 presumptive positive cases, prompting Edwards to close the state’s schools.

“We are at an inflection point now and we are going to take bold action to minimize the further spread of this illness,” Edwards said at the time. “That is why I am issuing this order today, ending all events of more than 250 people, closing our schools, and reducing the amount of face-to-face public interaction at state government buildings.”

Though 33 cases is a mere fraction of the case numbers seen today, the quick jump from one to 33 indicated that an upward trend had begun, as scientists and health experts worldwide had emphatically warned it would. 

March 16 — The governor’s executive order takes effect. Schools and most non-essential businesses close and large gatherings are prohibited. 

Around this time, many of Louisiana’s Republican politicians support or at least don’t criticize the governor’s virus response, except for one. In a video posted to Facebook, Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins criticized the lockdown order, saying: “You’re hurting the citizens that we serve. They can make up their own mind. These people that own these businesses, they can make up their own mind. They’re not stupid. You can’t make their decisions for them because you think you know best. They know how to limit contact and adjust their services to respond to this virus. It’s a virus, man!”

March 22 — Edwards issues the first “stay-at-home” order and prohibits groups larger than 10 people. The rate of spread in Louisiana during those first 10 days was among the fastest the world had seen. By late March, Orleans Parish had the highest per-capita COVID-19 death rate in the nation, likely driven by Mardi Gras crowds who gathered before the virus was known to be in Louisiana. 

April 2 — Edwards extends the lockdown to April 30. 

April 13 — Louisiana’s case count climbs to 21,016 with 884 deaths. The governor orders schools closed for the remainder of the academic year.

April 30 —  Health officials report more than 28,000 cases and 1,800 deaths. The spread shows signs of slowing but not enough to relax restrictions. Edwards extends the lockdown for a second time to May 15, 2020. 

By late April, the Republican super-majority in the Louisiana Legislature has been in session for more than a month. Disregarding the data and advice from health agencies and voicing disdain for the governor’s public health restrictions, some GOP legislators begin discussing using a petition to try to invalidate Edwards’ emergency orders, but those discussions stall.  

May 15 — The coronavirus curve has been clearly trending downward. The governor allows the “stay-at-home” order to expire and initiates Phase 1 of the state’s reopening. It is welcome news to many residents who have been on lockdown for more than seven weeks.

May 27 — Total American deaths exceeds 100,000.

June 5 — Edwards moves Louisiana to Phase 2, which allows restaurants to increase indoor capacity and bars, spas, gyms and other businesses to reopen. But the coronavirus curve had already begun showing signs of a relapse.

July 11 —  The state’s numbers reach a new peak with a single-day surge of more than 2,000 cases and a total of 76,803 with 3,295 deaths. The governor calls a Saturday press conference to announce new executive orders mandating people wear face masks in public, prohibiting any gatherings of more than 50 people, and shutting down bars, though some would remain open for takeout food orders and outdoor service. Health officials say the spike is being driven by people ages 18-29 whose infections can be traced to bars in Baton Rouge and areas outside of New Orleans. 

The Crescent City can no longer be blamed by the rest of the state, having significantly slowed its infections thanks to aggressive restrictions put in place by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

July 13 — Attorney General Jeff Landry issues an official opinion that the governor’s order closing bars and mandating face masks “does not pass the constitutional test” and “cannot be enforced with criminal or financial sanctions.” Landry’s opinion would later be rejected by state and federal courts but not before misleading many small Louisiana business owners into spending time and money on a doomed legal battle. After issuing his opinion, Landry announces he is in quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus.

July 20 — Using Landry’s opinion to support their claims, a group of small business owners in Jefferson Parish file a lawsuit in state court arguing that the governor’s orders are unlawful.

July 28 — Also using Landry’s opinion to support their claims, two other groups of small business and bar owners file identical federal lawsuits in Lafayette and New Orleans, arguing that the governor’s orders are unlawful.

Aug. 4 — The case curve and other statewide trends begin showing early signs of improvement — an effect the Louisiana Health Department attributes to the mask mandate and social distancing restrictions.

Aug. 7 — A 19th Judicial District judge rules against the Jefferson Parish business owners. 

Aug. 18 — The bar owners lose their federal court battle in New Orleans. 

Aug. 20 — State legislators approve an emergency election plan that makes no COVID-19-related allowances, which has the potential to make it hard for Louisiana voters at higher risk of severe COVID-19 complications to cast their ballots. The governor, whose signature is necessary for the plan to go into effect, refuses to sign it.

Aug. 21 — The bar owners lose in federal court in Lafayette.

Sept. 11 — Edwards moves Louisiana to Phase 3, loosening restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms, spas and other businesses. Bars are allowed to open for indoor service with limited capacity and hours. 

Sept. 16 — A  federal judge in Baton Rouge rules that the Republican-supported election plan denying COVID-19 accommodations imposed an unconstitutional and “undue burden” on the right to vote and orders allowances for mail and early voting.

Oct. 23 — Returning to the idea presented in April, House GOP members sign a petition in an effort to thwart Edwards’ emergency powers. Edwards then files a lawsuit challenging the petition. 

Nov. 12 — A Baton Rouge judge rules in favor of the governor, finding the House petition unconstitutional.

Nov. 25 — The once downward trend of COVID-19 cases has reversed following the less restrictive Phase 3, prompting Edwards to return the state to a modified version of Phase 2 that lowers occupancy limits for non-essential businesses. 

Dec. 10 —  After just 10 months of the pandemic, more Americans have died from COVID-19 than from combat in all four years of World War II, according to conflict statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Dec. 14 — Louisiana receives its first batch of vaccines — about 39,000 doses from Pfizer. Additional batches arrive weekly. 

Jan. 13, 2021 — The daily case count reaches 4,673 new cases and 53 new deaths, likely due to holiday gatherings and “COVID fatigue.”

Feb. 22, 2021 — Total American deaths exceeds a half-million.

March 3, 2021 — With an increase in vaccine shipments and a downward trending curve, Edwards moves the state to Phase 3 but keeps the face mask mandate in place.

March 9, 2021 — The state reaches a milestone as the number of fully vaccinated Louisianans exceeds the number of total cases for the first time.

March 15, 2021 — Health officials report more than a half-million vaccinated. The daily case count is 171, bringing the state total to 437,565 with 9,903 deaths. Completed vaccinations reach 533,644, and more than 900,000 vaccinations have been initiated, according to the state health department.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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