- The Advocate – BY SAM KARLIN | STAFF WRITER JUL 1, 2020 UPDATED JUL 1, 2020
As Louisiana continues to experience worsening coronavirus trends, state and federal officials are ramping up testing sites and will start to crack down on businesses not following the rules, an effort to avoid reaching a point where Gov. John Bel Edwards said he will impose more restrictions to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.
The state on Wednesday reported its largest number of new cases, 2,083, since April 4, when the state was still grappling with rapidly-rising cases and hospitalizations that prompted Edwards to institute a stay-at-home order in late March.
Testing has ramped up considerably since then, and the state nearly doubled its 200,000-a-month goal for tests administered in June, with about 385,000. Some of the cases reported Wednesday may have been from mid-June, because of a delay in reporting from one lab.
Still, the number of cases has outpaced the number of tests being administered, and cases have risen sharply in recent weeks. And hospitalizations – a key factor that Edwards’ administration looks at when deciding whether to impose or loosen restrictions – have risen from a low point of 542 on June 13 to 799. That puts the state back where it was on May 27 with hospitalizations.
“This disease is coming back and it’s coming back with a vengeance,” said state Health Officer Jimmy Guidry. “We better start getting serious.”
The most recent spike in cases came as East Baton Rouge joined Jefferson and Orleans parishes in mandating people wear masks, an effort to slow the spread of a highly-contagious virus that spreads largely person-to-person through respiratory droplets.
Federal, state and local officials, along with public health experts, have urged people to wear masks or face coverings to limit the spread of particles from the person wearing the mask.
In Phase 1 of Louisiana’s reopening, which ran from May 15 to June 5, the share of tests that resulted in positive cases was under 5%. But that figure has risen steadily, and sat at 7.4% over the past seven days, according to Louisiana Department of Health data. Federal officials say states should remain at least under 10% positive rates.
The surge is happening unevenly across the state. For instance, on Wednesday, Acadiana reported 12% of its total tests came back positive, and greater Baton Rouge had a 10% rate. The New Orleans region had a 5.6% rate.
Those rising rates of positive cases have garnered the attention of the White House, Edwards said at a Wednesday press conference. The governor said he had a long conversation on Tuesday with Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, who expressed concern about new cases outpacing increased testing, especially in Baton Rouge.
The rising caseload prompted federal and state officials to erect a testing site that will add 5,000 tests a day in capacity in Baton Rouge. Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said the sites will be located at Cortana Mall, LSU, Southern University and the Greater Baton Rouge Fairgrounds. Edwards added the state will be bringing mobile testing sites to several areas.
A host of other states have seen similarly worrying spikes in cases. Texas shuttered bars and Florida banned alcohol consumption at them. Arizona closed bars, gyms, movie theaters and other businesses.
Edwards said Wednesday he was not announcing additional restrictions yet. First, he hopes to get more compliance from people and businesses with the existing restrictions, and he pinned the increases in cases not on the phased reopening, but with people ignoring guidelines like wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.
On the other hand, the governor insisted, “We’re not going to threaten our ability to deliver health care.”
“If at some point if we don’t get off this trajectory, we’re on we’re going to have to impose more restrictions.”
He said the state will start cracking down on businesses who aren’t following the rules, performing more “courtesy” checks of restaurants, bars and other businesses to make sure they’re complying with his executive order. The governor issued his most recent order last Thursday, when he paused the reopening and kept the state in Phase 2 until at least July 24. The governor added he is not aware of any bars or restaurants having their liquor licenses pulled for not complying, which Texas has done to some bars.
“We are going to increase enforcement,” Edwards said. “Because we don’t want to go back to reduced occupancy if we can avoid it. We don’t want to go back to closing down businesses and so forth if we can avoid it.”
Acadiana continued to see worrying trends, as the virus put more people in the hospital as of Wednesday than at any point on record. One hundred twenty six COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in the seven parishes designated as Region 4, which is one more than those recorded on April 10.
Dr. Dawn Marcelle, the regional medical director for the Capital region, said the area is seeing a “noticeable and significant sharp increase” in cases. She said it is still possible that the virus could overwhelm health care facilities if it keeps spreading at its current rate.
Young people have comprised an outsized share of the rising caseload of late. While people in the 18-29 age group that have seen a surge in cases often don’t experience some of the more dire symptoms as older people or those with underlying health conditions, officials have warned they can easily spread the virus to those who are more at risk.
“Young people with COVID are contagious,” Edwards said. “We need them to be mindful of their own health but also we need them to be good neighbors.”
Staff writers Ben Myers, Bryn Stole and Emma Discher contributed to this story.