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Louisiana’s COVID-19 Surge Is Among The Worst In The U.S. And Some Leaders Are Still Fighting Masks

Louisiana Department of Health
A map of Louisiana's cumulative coronavirus cases as of Thursday. Dark red indicates over 200 cases per 100,000 people; light red indicates between 100 and 200 cases per 100,000 people.

Louisiana is now one of the leading states in the nation for most new coronavirus cases.

It ranks third in the U.S. this week for most new cases per capita on a rolling seven-day average, according to new data from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It’s a trajectory that could spark another shutdown. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to state Rep. Danny McCormick.

“The Constitution is being shredded before our very eyes,” McCormick claimed in a video he released this week railing against the new mandate to wear a mask in public in Shreveport. Kenner and Jefferson Parish have also announced mask mandates, which are already in place in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

McCormick represents parts of Caddo Parish, including Shreveport, where 243 people have died since the pandemic’s outbreak — and where Black people have died at twice the rate of white people. It’s also one of the parishes with the highest rates of new daily COVID-19 cases per capita in the state.

In the video, McCormick says mask mandates — one of the key preventative measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, especially in urban hotspots such as Shreveport — are an attack on “liberty.” Then he attempts to destroy a mask with a chainsaw.

McCormick also makes the goading claim that people who don’t wear masks will be treated like “Jews in Nazi Germany.”

While other Republican leaders — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott among them — have shifted to embracing mask mandates, McCormick isn’t the only Louisiana politician to attack mask-wearing. That’s despite the swelling pandemic and medical consensus that they’re not just helpful, but imperative.

Congressman Clay Higgins represents Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish, one of the most worrying regions in the state, and has repeated conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, made false claims about the efficacy of masks, and called wearing a mask part of the “dehumanization of the children of God.”

In Lafayette, another alarming hot-spot, Mayor-President Josh Guillory rejected a mask mandate this week. He claimed he made the move “based on the information I’m getting on the medical task force,” but The Advocate reported the task force wasn’t asked for its opinion and would actually support such a mandate.

Republicans in Baton Rouge spent most of the legislative session resisting requests to wear masks. And it appears that many people across the state have been doing the same.

Louisiana’s startling trajectory

Louisiana’s jump to the top of the list for most new coronavirus cases cannot be explained by increased testing. Hospitalizations grew by more than 50 percent over the last two weeks, and the percentage of positive tests in the state has also been rising. On Thursday the latter rate hit 12 percent positive — over the 10 percent threshold set by the state for safe opening in Phase 2. The 7-day rolling average is 8.7 percent, according to AH Datalyitcs.

Credit Ashley Dean

But that could already be too high. The World Health Organization’s recommended goal is 5 percent. A high positivity rate indicates that the virus’s spread is too great for contact tracing to work — and that’s assuming contact tracing is actually being broadly embraced by the public, which hasn’t been the case in Louisiana.

Dr. Vin Gupta, an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Washington, is among the medical experts warning that contact tracing is now useless across much of the U.S. because the virus has already spread too widely.

On Wednesday, Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state has “lost all the gains made in June” and is “now seeing some numbers that rival our peak back in April.”

And while Texas, Florida and Arizona are seeing higher increases in hospitalizations, Dr. Thomas Tsai, a surgeon and assistant professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, said it could be a matter of time.

“My worry is that Louisiana may just be a few weeks behind Texas and Arizona and Florida, unless more concerted efforts are taken,” he said.

It’s unclear whether there’s public appetite for that — or even to abide by the guidelines already in place. Health officials say that as the state reopened — too many people have ignored public health guidelines, particularly around wearing masks and keeping distance. Bars in particular have become a key source of outbreaks.

“Frankly, it's been really, really frustrating. Because just a few weeks ago, we were in a really, pretty good place,” said Suan Hassig, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Tulane University.

“The curve is going to bounce back up if we don't keep jumping on it and stomping it down.”

The plea of local public health leaders

If Louisiana’s hospitals are overwhelmed, if deaths once again spike, and if more people contract a virus that we’re learning could have long-term impacts on major organs including the brain and the heart, it won’t be because public health leaders across the state haven’t been sounding the alarm.

Amanda Logue, the chief medical officer for Lafayette General Health, released a video on Facebook last week talking with another hospital leader about the alarming rise of COVID-19 cases in Acadiana. She said her hospital had seen “about a 200 percent increase in hospitalizations over the last three weeks, which really correlated with the timing of Phase 2.”

For Lake Charles mayor Nic Hunter, the time has come to plead with the public to take the advice of local health leaders.

“God help us if we've come to a point in our society where during the middle of a pandemic,” he said, “if we want to know medical or scientific information, we are trusting a meme on Facebook, or what my brother-in-law overheard at the supermarket, more than guys like Dr. Tim Haman and Dr. Mac Jordan.”

Hunter was introducing Haman and Jordan — the head physicians of two Lake Charles hospitals — in a video on Monday. The Lake Charles area has the highest rate of new cases in the state. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have doubled from their previous peak in April. And the rate of positive tests has hit 25 percent.

All three denounced the polarization of mask-wearing, and Haman said he hates that masks have become “a political football.”

“We wear them in the hospital all day. We wear them 10 to 12 hours at a time here. So I don't think it's asking too much of someone to wear a mask for 20 minutes while you're in a grocery store,” he said. “I think it puts people at risk. We don't think anything of following traffic laws, wearing seatbelts, holding the door for somebody.”

Haman fears the consequences if people don’t change their behaviors.

“We are approaching the situation we're seeing in other cities like San Antonio and Houston where the healthcare system is on the verge of being overwhelmed,” he said.

How New Orleans became a relative bright spot in the state

What’s happened in Louisiana is the same story across the country: Areas that weren’t initially hit hard by the pandemic in the spring are now seeing an exponential growth in cases.

According to Harvard’s data, 26 parishes in Louisiana — and the entire state — are past a tipping point where stay-at-home measures should be implemented.

Amid that, New Orleans is now one of the bright spots in the state, with some of lowest rates of new cases. But even here, the trajectory is in the wrong direction.

Credit Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana

On Wednesday, Mayor Latoya Cantrell announced new restrictions based on trends in new cases and hospitalizations. Now, bar seating is prohibited in restaurants and bars — only table seating is allowed. Private indoor events are being limited to 25 people.

And there’s now the added worry of another shortage of test supplies.

New Orleans has had to nearly cut in half the number of daily tests it performs for free at its mobile testing site, amid rising demand. The city’s mobile testing sites have run out of spots even before they opened twice this week.

Dr. Jennifer Avegno, director of the city’s health department, said shortages in materials needed for the machines that analyze the tests are to blame, along with surging cases across the country.

“My great concern is that if there's a shortage, there's a shortage. And I don't know how they're prioritizing where they're sending the materials,” she said.

Testing is also being cut back by some hospital groups in the state — Ochsner Health is now only testing people with symptoms. And while Louisiana has been testing far above its goal of 200,000 tests per month, the Harvard analysis suggested that in order to suppress the virus, that could need to be quadrupled.

For Steven Procopio, the Policy Director at the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, the one bright spot in the exponential growth of cases is that deaths so far have not followed the same trajectory.

“It may be because of the younger ages of people who are getting it, or we have better treatments, or it just could be there's a lag and we haven’t been hit,” he said.

Hassig, the epidemiologist, said she wants to see mask mandates in every urban area. It could be that local leaders will be forced to make that call, because the governor has so far said he won’t implement such a requirement statewide.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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