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Edwards urges Louisianans to ring in new year at home as omicron rapidly spreads

covid cdc 2.jpg
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Louisiana is at the beginning of its most aggressive COVID-19 surge and it's unclear when cases will peak, Gov. John Bel Edwards told reporters at a virtual media briefing Thursday.

Until then, it's essential that residents do everything in their power to reduce the spread of the virus, he said, including canceling holiday plans and ringing in the new year at home.

“That’s how much COVID-19 there is out there right now, how highly transmissible it is and how serious the situation is,” he said.

Edwards said he will not attend the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day or see the New Orleans Saints play the Carolina Panthers on Sunday as planned. Instead, he will celebrate the new year at home with his immediate family.

Edwards issued no new mandates on Thursday, but said if trends continue he could reinstate the state’s mask requirement which he lifted in late October.

“I don't take it off the table because what we cannot have happen is that our hospitals lose the capacity to render lifesaving care and we will do a mask mandate before that happens,” he said.

Louisiana set a new daily record for confirmed COVID cases Thursday for the second day in a row. The highly transmissible omicron variant now accounts for more than 90% of new cases in Louisiana, health officials said.

There were 8,455 confirmed cases and an additional 4,012 probable cases reported by the state on Thursday.

COVID-related hospitalizations have increased by nearly 150% over the last week, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. More than 760 patients were hospitalized as of Wednesday.

Theresa Sokol, the state’s epidemiologist, joined Edwards at Thursday’s briefing and said other health measurements have also demonstrated just how quickly the omicron variant spreads.

The average number of daily state-wide COVID cases was 42 per 100,000 people at the beginning of December, well beneath the 100 per 100,000 threshold used to indicate high levels of transmission, she said.

This week, that number climbed to 287 per 100,000 and preliminary data suggests it will reach 750 per 100,000 next week, according to Sokol.

Right now, 95% of Louisiana parishes are at the state’s highest COVID risk level and next week that figure is expected to reach 100%.

COVID-related emergency room visits are also at an all-time high across the state, officials said. Residents are being instructed to go to the hospital only if they are in need of urgent medical care.

Sokol and Edwards said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s controversial decision to shorten its isolation standard by 5 days will help Louisiana hospitals remain staffed. All Tier 1 hospitals intend to adopt the new standard, Edwards said.

It is still unclear whether omicron causes illness that is less severe than earlier strains, Sokol said, adding that the sheer number of cases means the health system is still likely to face a record number of hospitalizations in the coming weeks.

Even though the current healthcare system has new tools to fight COVID than its past surges, she said there are also a number of new challenges.

A big one is the lack of therapeutics available to help mitigate the risk of severe illness in high risk patients, since monoclonal antibodies that were available to treat patients during the delta surge are no longer on the market.

Of the three monoclonal antibodies previously available, two have been deemed ineffective against the omicron variant and the federal government plans to stop distributing them at the beginning of January.

That leaves just one monoclonal antibody, sotrovimab, that’s effective against the current variant and right now the state has very limited supply.

“There just aren't enough to go around, so we don't have that option to help prevent hospitalization among the people who really may end up with severe illness,” Sokol said.

Additionally, the state has not yet received its first allocation of antiviral pills and when they do arrive, the quantity will be extremely limited, she said.

The state expects to receive 3,420 pills produced by Merck, considered 30% effective at reducing hospitalizations for high-risk patients, and 3,420 pills produced by Pfizer, considered 70% effective.

“If you're thinking in the context of the cases that we have, this is very limited,” Sokol said. “It's not going to be available for everybody who needs it, unfortunately.”

Officials said another challenge of the current surge is its timing, since schools are set to welcome students back to the classroom as early as Monday.

“This variant is capable of causing widespread outbreaks in schools and will likely result in K-12 school closures because of a large number of [teacher] absences if prevention measures are not strictly followed in these settings,” Sokol said.

Edward’s administration is urging all schools to treat health recommendations as if they are requirements, something they've been reluctant to do in the past, especially when it comes to masking.

Other recommendations include testing students before they return to the classroom, maintaining social distance when students are unmasked and eating and cancelling all extracurriculars until the state’s daily case count is less than 200 per 100,000 people.

Another important step is making sure all students are vaccinated, Edwards and Sokol said. Children as young as 5 years old have been eligible for the vaccine since early November.

“If schools implement these measures, then I do believe that there can be a real reduction in risk of transmission,” Sokol said.

New Orleans Public Schools is the only district in the state that currently requires students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or apply for an exemption.

It's also one a small number of districts that provide weekly testing for students through a free state-wide program. The district said many of its schools plan to provide additional testing for students before they return from winter break and as of now there are no plans to delay classes.

Sokol said parents should work with their local school district to make sure all of the state’s recommended mitigation measures are adopted.

If a school chooses not to follow the recommended step, Sokol said parents can take matters into their own hands by getting their child tested on their own or pulling them out of after school activities until the omicron surge slows.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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