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Governor Extends Statewide Mask Mandate As COVID Spread Remains High In Louisiana

Gov. John Bel Edwards at the statehouse in Baton Rouge.
Wallis Watkins
Gov. John Bel Edwards at the statehouse in Baton Rouge.

The statewide mask mandate will remain in place for another 28 days, Gov. John Bel Edwards said during a Tuesday press conference.

Despite weeks of dropping COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, “there’s still a very high level of COVID in Louisiana,” Edwards said.

“We are moving in the right direction, but our baseline numbers are still far too high,” he said.

The announcement came hours after the state reported that six pregnant women and 10 fetuses have died from COVID-19 during the last three months of the fourth wave.

Edwards reinstated the mandate in early August as the delta variant burned across the state. Hospitalizations peaked at 3,022 on Aug. 17 — about 1,000 more patients than during the winter surge — and have now dipped to 989.

But hospitals in the state are still handling four times the COVID-19 patients compared to late June, before the fourth wave began.

COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people are 2.5 times higher than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers “high” viral spread, Edwards said. State health department data shows viral spread is at the highest possible category in every parish.

The mandate ensures masks remain required at K-12 schools and colleges across the state, where outbreaks are 3.5 times less likely in schools where students and teachers are wearing masks, Edwards said. Masks also decrease the number of students and staff required to quarantine when a case is identified, said Dr. Joseph Kanter, the state health officer.

“Masking is going to be important for schools as long as the risk of community transmission remains elevated,” Kanter said.

The mandate is also one of the few tools the state has to help protect younger children under the age of 12 who can’t yet be vaccinated, during a striking spike in COVID-19 deaths among kids.

While they remain less likely to die than adults, the fourth surge has sparked record deaths from COVID -19 for kids 17 and under. Seven have died since the beginning of July, accounting for about half the total number of COVID-19 deaths during the entire pandemic in just three months.

The governor also noted that vaccination rates in Louisiana continue to lag below the national average. About 45 % of the population is fully vaccinated, up from 37 % before the start of the fourth surge.

“Quite frankly it’s not enough,” Edwards said. “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to get people vaccinated.”

Kanter said he was “encouraged” by weeks of dropping cases and hospitalizations, but he said the state needs another week or two of data to know whether Hurricane Ida led to any COVID-19 spikes as people moved around and sheltered in groups.

And he highlighted that while 30 deaths have been attributed to the storm, 1 ,491 people have died of COVID-19 since Ida hit.

“The death toll from COVID continues to be both remarkable and regrettable,” Kanter said.

“The saddest part for me is for months now the vast majority of deaths are preventable” thanks to the vaccine, he said.

He called the deaths of pregnant women and their unborn babies “absolutely devastating.” All of the cases involved unvaccinated pregnant women.

Vaccines are recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women by the CDC, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal and Fetal Medicine to prevent against the increased risk of severe illness for pregnant people and the increased risk of negative birth outcomes, including preterm births.

Fetuses and newborns can also gain the protection of their mother’s antibodies via the placenta and breastfeeding.

“I cannot encourage families enough,” Kanter said. “If you’re pregnant, if you're expecting to become pregnant, the vaccine is so very important to you and to your unborn child.”

He pointed to nursing home data, which shows that nursing homes — where 87 % of residents and 59 % of staff are at least partially vaccinated — saw strikingly few deaths during the fourth surge.

“In the most challenging of settings where the stakes are highest, where th most challenge to control spread these vaccines have really been a game changer,” he said.

The state has given out about 33,000 booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine since it became available last week for select groups. People who have been fully vaccinated with Pfizer for six months are eligible for a booster shot if they are over the age of 65, if they’re over 18 and have one or more of set list of underlying medical conditions, ranging from cancer to high blood pressure; or if they’re over 18 and live or work in setting where there’s a high risk for exposure to the coronavirus — including hospitals, schools or service industry settings.

The state’s 140 monoclonal antibody sites currently have enough supply to meet demand, Kanter said, though he warned that new federal allocations could create a shortage in the state in the coming weeks.
Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Rosemary Westwood is the public 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.