The Louisiana Department of Health has named Dr. Joseph Kanter as the new interim assistant secretary of public health — a job that will see him play a crucial role in managing the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And his promotion comes just as a series of factors could conspire to thrust Louisiana into a third wave of the pandemic.
The impacts of Hurricane Laura on disease spread remain opaque — and testing remains low in the regions hardest hit by the storm. The flu season is upon us, a factor that could restrict hospital capacity. The reopening of universities has led to spikes in cases at some schools. And the governor’s decision to move to Phase 3, loosening capacity at businesses and sporting events, provides another avenue for the virus to spread.
“I have a lot of concern,” Kanter said. “And the stakes have never been higher.”
He said the increased movement in the state, the shift to somewhat more normal work and socializing is “good, but we have to be more vigilant than we ever have before.”
Another factor bound to influence the virus’s trajectory is whether the Republican-dominated legislature will curtail the Democratic governor’s power to enact or enforce restrictions such as capacity limits in businesses or the mask mandate — the dominant purpose of the special session currently underway.
“It is a contentious time,” Kanter said. “I think this governor has done a tremendous job, he's been responsible. He's listened to a variety of viewpoints.”
“If his ability to issue emergency proclamations and do the things that he needs to do in times of emergency is hampered, I think it is not a stretch to say that lives will be lost in Louisiana. That literally is the stakes.”
The state needs to continue it’s “measured approach” to balancing the risks of daily life with the risk of the still deadly disease, he said.
Kanter himself was at the Capitol last week with state health officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry to answer questions from House representatives, some of whom who pressed the officials on why high school sports can’t have more people in the stands.
During questioning, Kanter argued that the state’s relative stability in terms of new cases and deaths — there have been an average of about 500 new cases and 15 deaths a day since mid-September — is evidence that the restrictions are working and need to be continued.
Kanter takes over from Dr. Alex Billioux, who has been a prominent figure in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ regular coronavirus press briefings and a key advisor on the coronavirus. Billioux announced he was stepping down from the role in early September in order to spend more time with his family.
Kanter was previously the health department’s director of Region 1, which covers New Orleans, and he oversaw the region’s response to the early and deadly outbreak of the pandemic. He’s also been a figure at the governor’s announcements and press briefings, and a regular spokesman for the department’s effort to track and mitigate the pandemic.
Kanter said he was aware that some public health officials are criticizing the governor’s move to Phase 3. They argue it adds too much risk to an already precarious time in the pandemic, especially when it remains unclear if the coronavirus will follow the path of other viruses and spike in the fall and winter.
“We have calls every week with public health experts throughout the state to talk about these issues. And there has been very candid and open discussion about these things,” he said.
He called it an example of how the governor is balancing public health views with the calls from other constituencies.
“If anybody doesn't think that the governor is listening to all voices, and making the best decision he thinks he can do for the state, they're flat out wrong. And this is one example of them.”
Kanter said he expects to be in his new role for the foreseeable future — meaning it will be his job to manage not just the pandemic’s course over the fall and winter, but the hopeful rollout of an eventual vaccine in the spring or summer of next year.
His other top priority is to address the state’s racial disparities in health care.
“When you look at what's happened with COVID, it is just unacceptable to see the racial disparities and who was getting exposed who was getting sick,” he said. “It's a real black eye if there ever was one. COVID didn't invent this problem, it was here before, but it's certainly ripped the lid off it. And we have to do a better job of addressing it.”