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Indoor mask guidance issued as Louisiana officials warn of 'beginning of a surge'

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As the number of omicron variant cases rises in Louisiana, the state department of health issued new guidance Tuesday strongly recommending that all people — regardless of vaccination status — wear masks indoors and get tested for COVID-19 regularly during upcoming holiday celebrations.

The Louisiana Department of Health reported twice as many new cases over the last seven days than it did the week before, and 75% of Louisiana parishes have high or substantial COVID-19 transmission. Statewide test positivity rates have climbed from 2.2% last week to 3.3% today — even as test volume has increased ahead of holiday gatherings.

But Theresa Sokol, state epidemiologist, said one of the most worrying changes in those health metrics is the sharp increase in hospitalizations over the last few days. On Thursday, 207 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Louisiana. The next day, that number jumped to 226 and by Monday it had risen to 241.

Sokol and public health experts with the Louisiana Department of Health held a technical briefing with reporters to issue new guidance for how people should safely celebrate the holiday season.

The first piece of advice: get vaccinated.

“Not being vaccinated leaves people unprotected against the severe health outcomes from COVID,” Sokol said. “The most recent data from the CDC reports that unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to test positive for COVID than fully vaccinated people, and they’re 20 times more likely to die from COVID than fully vaccinated people.”

Sokol acknowledged that early data indicates that the vaccines are slightly less effective at preventing infection from the omicron variant, but they remain the single greatest tool at reducing the likelihood that someone dies from COVID-19

She also echoed CDC guidance, which recommends that vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike wear masks in public indoor settings. Sokol added that individuals celebrating the holidays in private settings should wear a mask if they are around people from outside their household.

Sokol also recommended people frequently test themselves for COVID-19 — regardless of vaccination status.

“If we’re thinking about the holiday season and about traveling and gathering with family, we want folks to get tested before traveling, before gathering and again when you get home,” Sokol said, reminding people that tests provide just a snapshot of someone’s COVID status, and it may take a few days after exposure for viral levels to be high enough to garner a positive result.

“Just because you test negative before a flight doesn’t mean you’re still going to be negative two days later when you go to gather at your family’s house,” Sokol added.

Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer for Our Lady of the Lake, said looking at the data last night prompted her staff to do a “hard-reset” and return to the COVID-19 protocols utilized during previous surges.

“Every once in a while we have a bad day, we have a bad case count and … then it fizzles out,” O’Neal said. “That is not what we have seen over the last week. We have seen the beginning of a surge. We’ve been through it so many times before, and the tell-tale signs are all there.”

Those signs not only include an increase in cases, but nearly full hospitals and a spike in COVID-19 testing demand, officials said.

On Monday, the department issued a public text message warning of a “dramatic increase” in omicron cases in the coming weeks.

“We know that if we all take out our COVID playbook together we can help to at least dampen the surge “ O’Neal said. “How high it gets, how painful it gets for all of our families depends on our community.”

In a hospital setting, that playbook has led to the postponement of non-emergency procedures and universal masking “whether you’re in a clinical area or in the billing department,” O’Neal said.

In her personal life, O’Neal said the rise of omicron has pushed her to adjust her holiday traditions. For example, the new variant won’t prevent her, a fully vaccinated person with few underlying health concerns, from going to her nephew’s basketball tournament. But it will push her to pick seats farther away from people outside her household and she plans to be masked the entire time she is in public.

O’Neal advised others to make similar accommodations.

A mask and testing guidance similar to Monday’s have been issued before by Louisiana officials. Just before the worst of the delta surge — and weeks after the statewide mask mandate had been removed for the first time since it had been put into effect in 2020 — officials issued an indoor mask guidance.

Shortly after, a mask mandate went back into effect. The state of Louisiana and most municipalities have lifted all of their COVID-19 mitigation protocols. New Orleans is one of the outliers, which recently expanded its vaccine mandate to apply to anyone 5 and older who goes to a restaurant, bar or event within the parish.

As of Monday, the omicron variant is now the most dominant variant of the coronavirus in the U.S., according to the CDC.