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COVID Hospitalizations Dip Slightly In Louisiana, But Officials Say 4th Wave Is Far From Over

 Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses members of the press as State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter looks on. November 5, 2020.
Paul Braun
Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses members of the press as State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter looks on. November 5, 2020.

For the second day in a row, the Louisiana Department of Health reported a slight decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations. But Gov. John Bel Edwards and public health officials are urging Louisianans to stay vigilant and masked as the state continues to fight one of the worst coronavirus surges in the country.

On Friday, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 5,922 confirmed and probable new cases of COVID-19, along with 56 confirmed deaths.

The LDH reported 2,999 COVID patients are in Louisiana hospitals — down 14 from Thursday's report, but still nearly 1,000 more than were hospitalized at the peak of the third surge in January.

The latest numbers are a small step in the right direction. Every day for nearly two weeks, Louisiana reported record-high COVID hospitalizations, and the state led the nation in the number of new cases per capita.

Public health officials say transmission is still too high, and healthcare providers are still overwhelmed by the volume of COVID patients they’re treating.

As children return to classrooms for the fall semester, Dr. Joe Kanter, state health officer for LDH and Edwards’ top health adviser, said he's concerned that they will become even more effective vectors for the virus.

Over the last two days, 28 percent of new cases reported by LDH were among children age 17 and under.

While children rarely experience severe symptoms, they readily transmit the virus to more vulnerable people they come into contact with.

“Our kids are absolutely getting COVID. They are absolutely spreading COVID,” Kanter said.

Dr. Kim Mukerjee, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Tulane University, said children need to return to classroom settings — where studies have shown students learn better — but masks should be required.

“Now is not the time to politicize things that we know are excellent measures to mitigate the impact of preventable illness in children,” Mukerjee said. “One death is too many. One child who falls behind is too many.”

Edwards is standing by his decision to mandate masks in all indoor settings, including schools, despite pushback from some parents.

“We have to keep our children safe, and you cannot keep children safe and schools open without masks,” Edwards said. “It would be an absolute recipe for disaster to take kids from all across the state of Louisiana, put them together for 7 hours a day in close proximity to one another, indoors and unmasked and then send them back into the community.

Twice this week state government meetings were interrupted by maskless protesters seeking to nullify Edwards’ mask mandate in classrooms.

On Monday, the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee held a special meeting to discuss the pandemic and exemptions for school vaccine mandates currently allowed by state law. Minutes into the meeting, committee chairman Larry Bagley (R-Stonewall) asked the largely unmasked crowd to comply with the state’s mask mandate. Many refused, and a recess was declared so capitol security could remove those who remained unmasked.

The raucous crowd frequently interrupted Kanter as he briefed lawmakers on the state's response to the pandemic. Anti-mask protesters and vaccine skeptics dominated the hours-long public testimony period that followed.

On Wednesday, another group of anti-mask protesters disrupted a meeting of the state’s top school board. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) was scheduled to consider implementing statewide health and safety standards that may have been at odds with Edwards’ mask mandate after state attorney general Jeff Landry issued a legal opinion saying BESE alone has the authority to make classroom safety policies. Edwards has disputed Landry's opinion, which does not carry the force of law.

But before the board members could have that discussion, they abruptly voted to adjourn after a large number of protesters refused to put on face coverings and consistently interrupted proceedings.

Edwards criticized those protesters during his Friday media briefing, saying they have no right to “unreasonably danger” other people by refusing to wear a mask and by sending their children unmasked into a classroom setting.

“The science is very, very clear around masking,” Edwards said. “That’s why it’s a CDC recommendation. That’s why it’s an American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. And it’s not something that we have to guess about because we’ve done this here in Louisiana and elsewhere around the country and around the world for quite a while now.”

Earlier this week, the White House announced that federal regulators will likely recommend that the general population receive a third booster dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines eight months after receiving their second dose.

Kanter says Louisiana will be ready once the recommendation clears federal regulatory hurdles. An additional shot of Pfizer or Moderna for some people with weakened immune systems are available statewide.

“We have plenty of vaccines in Louisiana, we have a large vaccine provider network, we have the machinery and apparatus in place to do this,” Kanter said.
Copyright 2021 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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