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Gov. Edwards’ Reinstates Statewide Mask Mandate To Combat Delta Variant

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One of the slides from Gov. Edwards' press briefing Monday showing a dramatic increase in cases and hospitalizations caused by the delta variant.

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday that he is reinstating the statewide mask mandate for all Louisianans — vaccinated or not — while indoors to better combat the delta variant of the coronavirus.

The mandate will take effect Wednesday and will remain in place until Sept. 1, unless extended by Edwards. It will apply to everyone 5 years and older in all public indoor settings, including schools It comes just days before many Louisiana children begin the new school year.

Edwards was flanked by public health experts and doctors from the many of the state’s largest hospitals as he made the announcement.

“It has become extremely clear that our current recommendations on their own are not strong enough to deal with Louisiana’s fourth surge of COVID,” Edwards said. “Our latest numbers further confirm that we simply have to do more.”

The Louisiana Department of Health reported 11,109 new cases over the weekend and hospitalizations climbed to 1,984. LDH State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said he expects the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations to reach an all-time high on Tuesday, further straining weary hospital staff.

Louisiana has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country — only 37 percent of the state's population are fully vaccinated — and the highest incidence of new cases per capita.

More than 46,000 people sought out their first vaccine dose since Thursday, but Edwards and public health officials said the mask mandate is a quicker way to slow the spread of the delta variant.

Nearly two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its masking recommendations and encouraged vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals to wear face coverings indoors and in large crowds. Last week, the CDC released data from its investigation into a recent outbreak in Massachusetts that showed that vaccinated individuals spread the delta variant just as readily as the unvaccinated.

Doctors and public health officials welcomed the mask mandate as a “lifeline.”

“These are the darkest days of this pandemic. We are no longer giving adequate care to patients,” said.

Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. O’Nealsaid COVID-19 patients currently fill one quarter of the facility’s patient beds. One-third of the current COVID-19 patients require ICU care, and non-COVID patients who would ordinarily be sent to ICU are forced to wait indefinitely in the emergency room.

On Monday, the hospital welcomed a federal strike team of 33 doctors and nurses to help address staffing issues.

For many other facilities, no help is available.

Michele Sutton, CEO of North Oaks Medical Health System in Hammond said staffing is her greatest challenge.

“We have 62 employees out with COVID right now,” Sutton said. “We have beds but we don’t have people to staff them.”

Sutton said her hospital has suspended elective procedures and has had to divert ambulances with trauma patients because of their staffing woes.

“Our staff is demoralized because they truly believe this surge was preventable if we had all done our part with vaccinations and masking,” she added.

Dr. Mark Kline, physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, said he’s not aware of a single opening in a children’s hospital in the state. He said the mask mandate is a necessary tool to protect unvaccinated children who will be returning to school in coming weeks.

Children 12 years old and older can be vaccinated, but only 12 percent of the state’s eligible children have been vaccinated so far.

“We’ve all been dreading the opening of schools because we feel that will be a catalyst for more and more cases, more and more suffering and potentially more deaths,” Kline said.

Before Edwards’ mask mandates, individual school districts were left to decide whether or not they would require face coverings when students and teachers returned to campus this fall.

Dr. Phyllis Mason, chief medical officer for the Natchitoches Regional Medical Center said the mask mandate is a “game changer.”

“The way I think about this surge right now, it’s like a boxing match,” Mason said. “We’re in the fourth round of this boxing match, and this opponent is bigger, he’s better, he’s smarter than us. But it’s going to take a one-two punch to knock him down. It’s going to take the vaccine and it’s going to take masking.”

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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