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Louisiana sees ‘explosive growth’ in COVID data, but Edwards stops short of mask mandate

Paul Braun

As the omicron variant pushes daily COVID-19 case totals to record highs and statewide hospitalizations eclipse the 2,000-mark, Gov. John Bel Edwards urged Louisianans to rely on vaccines and masks to stay safe but made no changes to the state’s COVID-19 mitigation measures.

Louisiana has posted record-high daily case totals four times in the last two weeks, and Edwards warned that the omicron variant is the most transmissible strain of the virus yet.

“I’m encouraging everyone to do the single most important thing, which is getting vaccinated. Please get that additional shot,” Edwards said. “Wear your mask indoors and outdoors if distancing is not possible. Work from home if possible.”

On Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 14,932 new cases of COVID-19 in the state, 2,081 hospitalizations and 11 deaths.

The case total is a slight decrease from the record-shattering 17,592 reported by the state department of health on Wednesday.

The data do not include the vast majority of at-home test results, which are usually not reported to the state.

On top of those cases, the LDH reported 2,384 new reinfections — positive test results from people who contracted the virus earlier in the pandemic, recovered, then contracted the virus again. Over the course of the pandemic, the LDH has recorded 35,819 COVID-19 reinfections.

The state department of health has internally tracked reinfections for months but only started reporting the statistic publicly on Thursday. LDH state health officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said up to this point the relatively few positive test results had been kept out of daily case totals, but as reinfections have increased during the omicron surge, the department has decided to include those cases in daily totals on its COVID-19 dashboard starting next week.

Thursday’s hospitalization tally eclipsed the peak recorded during the January 2021 surge but is still lower than the numbers recorded during the delta surge’s peak last August, which climbed to more than 3,000 patients.

The omicron variant is more transmissible than previous variants, but early indications are that it is also milder. Of the more than 2,000 people in the state currently hospitalized with COVID, only 129 are on ventilators.

But the virus is still incredibly dangerous among the elderly and unvaccinated, and 92 Louisiana children were hospitalized with COVID-19 last week, according to the state department of health.

“We have more children hospitalized today than we did at the height of the delta peak,” Edwards said. “That includes 0- to 4-year-olds as well — people who are too young to even be eligible for the vaccine.”

Edwards has long said that he would tailor the state’s COVID-19 mitigation measures to preserve the healthcare system’s ability to deliver life-saving care, and he reaffirmed Thursday that he is closely monitoring hospital capacity.

Edwards said he has not received any formal requests to reimpose the mask mandate from hospital leaders across the state. A similar request prompted Edwards’ decision to reimpose the politically unpopular mandate in August.

The City of New Orleans reimposed its mask mandate on Tuesday in anticipation of upcoming Mardi Gras celebrations. Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the city health officer, said that the mandate will remain in effect “until further notice” and likely through Carnival season.

In a press conference last week, Edwards hinted at today's “newsworthy” announcement but provided no additional details at that time.

Gov. Edwards first imposed his statewide mask mandate on July 13, 2020, and it remained in effect until May 2021. Edwards then reimposed the mandate in August as the delta variant pushed hospitalizations and deaths to all-time highs in the state. The mandate was lifted again in October as the delta variant faded.

With the emergence of omicron, Kanter said the state is experiencing “explosive growth” in new COVID cases and has seen no signs that the variant is nearing its peak in Louisiana.

“We’re testing more individuals for COVID in Louisiana than we have tested at any point prior in this pandemic,” Kanter said, adding that the LDH has tracked 600,000 test results in January alone.

Even with that increased test volume, the state is seeing a test positivity rate of nearly 29% — the highest rate since March 2020, when COVID-19 was rapidly spreading but the state didn’t have the testing volume that it does now.

“This has been a faster upswing considering the number of cases we’ve had before,” Kanter said. “The hope and expectation is that it will be a faster downswing as well, but we’ve not peaked yet, and you never really know you’ve peaked until you’re on the other side.”

Edwards urged patience and caution as the state navigates this latest surge.

“This is not forever,” Edwards said. “At some point, we will peak out in the surge, as we have previously, and we’re going to start coming down the other side, but quite frankly we’re not there yet.”

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.