The past week has been a tale of two pandemics.
In the first, rising coronavirus cases across Louisiana, the South and the West, have health officials giving blunt and passionate warnings of a surge that, if left unchecked, could lead to overwhelmed hospitals and spiking death counts.
The U.S. set a daily record for coronavirus cases Thursday, prompting the White House coronavirus task force to host its first media briefing in two months. On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbot of Texas, one of the country’s hotspots, closed bars in the state and reduced capacity for businesses. Gov. John Bel Edwards warned Friday that “we’re still not currently close to exceeding our ability to deliver healthcare, but we're heading in that direction.”
Louisiana saw a week of rising hospitalizations and a new high percentage of positive tests — now above 7 percent for four days straight — despite an effort to test as many people as possible. NOLA.com reported that some health centers were seeing positive test rates over 50 percent.
The goal is to keep that figure beneath 10 percent positive, a rate that health officials believe will ensure the virus’s transmission is kept in check so it doesn’t once again threaten to overrun hospitals.
But in the second story of the pandemic, the threat is the public health measures in place to slow the virus. Last week, a group of Republican lawmakers in Baton Rouge were again trying to override the governor’s authority to call the shots on how, and how swiftly, the state reopens. Rep. Alan Seabaugh authored the petition, which failed to get enough signatures to rescind the governor’s emergency orders, in March, and it resurfaced last week after Edwards announced that the state would stay in Phase 2. The petition has now been signed by a few dozen GOP house members including Rep. Blake Miguez, the leader of the House Republicans.
“Somewhere along the line the common sense approach has turned into a complete and utter loss of freedom, freedom to work and freedom to provide for our families,” said Rep. Danny McCormick, another signator, this week on the House floor.
Lawmakers’ laissez-faire attitude toward the health department’s recommendation to wear a mask in public — especially indoors — is well documented. There’s a visible partisan divide between maskless GOP members and mask-wearing Democrats.
A treasury department staffer and Senate student worker have both tested positive for the virus this week.
Yet some of the parishes with worrisome trends are also home to lawmakers demanding the state reopen. Seabaugh represents Caddo Parish, where positive cases hit a low of 2.7 percent on June 12 and have since risen steadily to between 4 and 6 percent. Miguez represents Iberia and Vermilion parishes, which have collectively seen the rate of positive cases rise since June 13 from 3.2 to 7.8 percent.
Not all GOP lawmakers followed suit. Lance Harris, a representative from Alexandria, where cases have been dancing around the 10 percent positive rate since early May and rose to 12 percent this week, didn’t sign the petition. Democratic senator Katrina Jackson, who represents the Monroe area, another hotspot in the state, wrote on Twitter that the state is “still in Phase 2, because the daily new cases of Corona are back at the same level before the state closed!!!”
“I respect my colleagues, but really do not understand why anyone believes that this is in the best interest of our constituents,” she wrote.
Rep. Raymond Crews, another lawmaker who signed the petition, hails from Bossier, where positive tests rose to nearly 5 percent for the first time since early May. Crews also authored a resolution to ensure contact tracing is voluntary and that the health department protects people’s privacy and cell phone data — concerns the health department has said are unfounded, since the program is already voluntary and the information collected is minimal and related to the person’s whereabouts in the past few days.
Crews said the view from Bossier among his constituents is broadly one of distrust in the ongoing restrictions.
On the contact tracing front, there’s a general fear of corporate and government data collection, spurred by concerns about data privacy and media narratives of government spying, he said.
“People are getting more and more skeptical of just what information is available on them and their activities and where they're going and who they associate with,” he said.
He suggested people could be doing their own contact tracing themselves if they test positive.
Crews said his resolution wasn’t about accusing the government of mishandling people’s information, “just a desire to give a promise that it would not be used in those types of ways.”
He also described a community that seems to doubt the threat posed by the virus.
“Bossier is not suffering like the further south areas, the more metropolitan areas,” Crews said. “Matter of fact, we're down to just one facility handling COVID patients, so we’re far below capacity. The big worry is these small businesses that have not been able to reopen and now
have been delayed another 28 days.”
Crews expressed doubt at the rising number of positive cases in the state, noting they could be attributed to rising testing — though he didn’t mention the rising percent of positive cases, which is the key metric used to put rising cases into context and determining the virus’s spread.
“Obviously it's spreading a little bit more. But it's also been said that it's not as lethal now,” he said, adding that he’d heard that in the national news.
Only a handful of doctors in Italy have said this, and they were rebuked by the World Health Organization and UK experts. There has been no quantitative study to prove such a claim. Meanwhile, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released this week suggests infections could be 10 times the documented 2.4 million cases, based on antibody testing.
Crews said wearing masks or social distancing hasn’t been common among people in the Bossier area.
“I think it is partly because of some inconsistency they see, like, ‘Well, if it's so unsafe, why are hardware stores, for instance, allowed to open? Why can you go to the supermarket and have no problem, but you can't go somewhere else?’” he said. “And of course, I mean, over a period of time, people do get tired of that, and they want to return to some sense of a normal mode of life.”
“It’s hard for people to understand why the entire community has to abide by shutdown orders and restrictions when they believe that not everyone faces the same risk, Crews said.
“If there's certain segments of the population have particularly at risk, why are we tamping down and putting the screws on all the economic activity to protect those,” he said, “because in the past what we do [is] we keep them separate, keep them safe, not say, ‘Hey, everybody, just stop everything and we're not going to let anything, move on.’”
But that thinking ignores the fact that while older people, people with comorbidities including respiratory issues, hypertension and diabetes, and Black and Latino people do face higher risks of death from the disease, it has infected and killed Americans from all backgrounds. Young people appear to have felt particularly immune, despite the fact that thousands have contracted the virus and a dozen have died in Louisiana. Among people aged 30 to 39, 55 people have died in Louisiana, a number that jumps to 111 for people in their 40s.
Crews also brought up narratives far outside the mainstream conversation in public health circles around the virus. One was that health officials were suggesting the U.S. aim for herd immunity before a vaccine was available. Another was that the virus isn’t “particularly intense” for young people and so they should be encouraged to get infected. Neither of these proposals have had widespread support, though they’ve been discussed by right-wing news sources including Fox News, The Federalist and Rush Limbaugh. Early in the pandemic, epidemiologists talked about herd immunity, which occurs when 70 percent of the population has been exposed and developed resistance to a virus, as a way to explain why the coronavirus was so dangerous. Not only did no one in the U.S. have immunity before the outbreak, but it is also far more deadly than the flu and 100 times more deadly than the chickenpox, as infectious disease epidemiologists from John Hopkins pointed out when dispelling the myth of herd immunity.
Still, people in his district are “wondering why have we abandoned the idea of the herd immunity,” Crews said.
They’re also suspicious of an eventual vaccine, which is far and away the best option to inoculate the vast majority of people against the virus and allow for a complete reopening of states and an end to emergency orders.
“There are many people who have come to me already and said, ‘Listen, Raymond, they may get a vaccine, but I'm not gonna be the first to test it,’” Crews said. “There are a lot of people like, ‘Well, it isn't gonna be me or anybody, my family.’ There is a lot of concern about that.”