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As Edwards Mulls Statewide Mask Mandate, Cantrell Issues Local Order Effective Immediately

Patrick Madden

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Friday that he is “seriously considering” a statewide mask mandate for all Louisianans to curb transmission of the coronavirus as the state sees the highest rate of case growth in the country.

Edwards said over the last 24 hours numerous hospitals and health organizations have requested that he reinstate a statewide mask mandate. Edwards said he will make an official announcement on Monday. He said he wanted time to analyze data issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Friday afternoon, which found that people appear to spread the highly contagious delta variant regardless of their vaccination status.

The study, which looked at an outbreak in Massachusetts, led the CDC to change its guidance this week for mask wearing. It now encourages everyone, regardless of their vaccine status, to wear masks indoors or in large crowds.

Edwards lifted the statewide mask mandate April 27 as COVID-19 vaccines became widely available to Louisiana residents. The mandate had been in place since July 2020. Edwards said then that masks had proven effective, but the advent of the vaccines reduced the need for them.

Edwards said the new data may lead him to reverse course and reimplement the mask mandate.

“When the facts change and you learn new things… you have to change your approach,” Edwards said.

Last week, Edwards strongly recommended that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors. On Thursday, state officials mandated masks for Louisiana’s executive branch employees and for all visitors to state buildings.

The Louisiana Department of Health reported 5,313 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, bringing the weekly total to 21,543. More than 1,740 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized — a figure that is fast approaching record-high hospitalizations and is putting additional strain on the state’s beleaguered health care system. LDH reported 31 additional COVID-19 related deaths, the highest single day death toll since March 10.

The surge is overwhelming hitting unvaccinated people. About 90 percent of all cases and hospitalizations and 85 percent of deaths are among people who are not fully unvaccinated.

Edwards described the rapid increase in hospitalizations as the “most distressing” trend in this latest coronavirus surge. He said the swift influx of COVID-19 patients has driven 45 hospital systems to request staffing assistance. Many hospitals have decided to postpone all non-emergency procedures to devote more resources to treating COVID-19 patients.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that it is as bad now as it has been at any point in the pandemic,” said Joe Kanter, state health officer for the LDH. “And the most troubling thing is that the trajectory doesn’t show any signs of slowing.”

“Quite simply the Delta variant is an absolute game changer superimposed in Louisiana on a state that is not sufficiently vaccinated,” Edwards said.

According to CDC data, 41.8 percent of the Louisiana population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Only 36.8 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. Mississippi, Idaho, and Wyoming are the only states that have a smaller percentage of fully vaccinated residents.

Getting vaccinated drastically reduces the likelihood of an individual testing positive for the coronavirus and even further reduces the likelihood that an infected person will have a serious case that leads to hospitalization or death.Fully vaccinated individuals are eight times less likely to contract COVID-19 and those who do test positive are 25 times less likely to be hospitalized or killed by the disease, Kanter said.

But breakthrough COVID-19 cases have been increasing as the total number of infections surges in Louisiana.

Two fully vaccinated members of Edwards’ staff recently tested positive for the coronavirus, Edwards’ announced Friday. The staffers, who have not been identified, are staying at home in isolation, per guidance from the CDC and the LDH, Edwards said in a press release.

Kanter likened the protection vaccines offer to the protection offered by a raincoat in a storm.

“If it's a mild rain, you put on a raincoat, you go outside and you’re going to be well protected against that rain,” Kanter said. “But if it’s pouring, if it’s a summer storm you’re probably going to need an umbrella too.”

“As it relates to COVID, it’s pouring right now,” he added.

Kanter said the grim outlook in the state’s fight against the coronavirus seems to be driving more people to get vaccinated. Twice as many people sought out their first vaccine doses last week than did the week before, and Kanter expects that figure to double yet again in the coming week.

The Delta variant has also proven to be more dangerous to children, Kanter said.

People aged 18 to 29 account for the largest number of new cases in the state, Kanter said and those under the age of 18 account for the second largest number of new cases.

“These people are getting COVID, they’re spreading COVID and in rare but growing cases, they are getting very sick from COVID.”

In May, federal regulators allowed children aged 12 to 15 to receive the vaccine, but vaccinations among that demographic have lagged. Only 12 percent of Louisiana children aged 12 to 17 have been vaccinated.

On Friday, officials with Ochsner Health said hospitalizations had jumped by 17 percent in just two days. The rate of positive COVID-19 tests is at 20 percent, but it’s higher — 23 percent — among children, and hospitals are seeing a worrying increase in children being admitted for COVID-19.

About 90 percent of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Ochsner facilities are unvaccinated.

The impact of COVID patients on other health care is also escalating, said CEO Warner Thomas. Hospitals are having to increasingly delay non-urgent surgeries and take in fewer transfers from across the state and the Gulf South, which have been cut roughly in half.

Staffing shortages are adding to the crunch, causing the shutdown of a Lafayette operating room because there aren’t enough people to run it.

Thomas said he was among hospital leaders who asked the governor to institute a mask mandate.

Ochsner has 520 employees in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.

It’s seen an uptick in demand for COVID-19 testing and will open a drive-through testing site at its Jefferson Highway location in New Orleans. It’s also ramping up its ability to vaccinate people as demand rises.

It administered double the number of vaccine doses to the public this week as last week. Staff vaccinations — which had stalled at about 61 percent — are also rising. About 800 employees received a first dose of a vaccine this week, and another 1000 first doses for staff are scheduled for next week.

Just hours after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced he is “considering” a mask mandate for the state Friday, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell re-instituted a mask mandate for all indoor settings in Orleans Parish.

The city has seen over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 in the past week and six deaths, according to the mayor. Cantrell also stated that doctors are urging her to issue the mandate as the delta strain of the virus appears to be causing more severe health outcomes for young people and said pediatric hospitals are filling up with patients.

“This touches everyone in our community,” said Cantrell. “But with a very laser focus on young children in our community. Our children are dying.”

Cantrell also made vaccinations mandatory for all city contractors. When asked if she thought she might lose some contractors over the new requirement, Cantrell rebutted, “I'm worried about losing city employees as it relates to death.”

The mask mandate also requires any outdoor event of over 500 people to be masked as well.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.
Rosemary Westwood
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.