Increased testing shows ballooning virus cases in Louisiana

The nearly deserted Bourbon Street, which is normally bustling with tourists and revelers, stands in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Thursday, March 19, 2020.


By MELINDA DESLATTE AND KEVIN MCGILL | Associated Press | Published: March 25, 2020

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BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana scrambled to ready makeshift hospitals and gather medical supplies as the steady uptick of coronavirus cases continued Wednesday, with increased testing capacity demonstrating what officials feared, a ballooning number of infected people that remained among the highest per-capita rates in the nation.

Nearly 1,800 people in the state were confirmed to have the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, according to the latest figures from Louisiana's health department, an increase of 400 from the previous day. Sixty-five Louisiana residents have died from the disease, only two weeks after the state's first positive test, the data shows. The disease has been confirmed in three-quarters of Louisiana's 64 parishes.

President Donald Trump granted a federal disaster declaration for Louisiana on Tuesday night, acknowledging the scale of Louisiana's outbreak and unlocking millions of dollars in federal aid for the state's response. The designation, which had been sought by Gov. John Bel Edwards, adds Louisiana to a list that includes California, Washington and New York to get reimbursement for certain expenses dating back to Jan. 20 and other forms of assistance.

Louisiana has the third-highest rate of confirmed virus cases per capita, Edwards said.

"Quite frankly we haven't yet seen the curve, the spread curve start to flatten in a way that's going to help us," the Democratic governor said Wednesday on WWL radio. "And if we stay on the trajectory we're on now, we know that we will — even after surging our hospital capacity — sometime around April 7 or so, we will exceed our capacity to deliver health care" in the New Orleans area, a few days later than prior estimates.

Edwards issued a statewide "stay at home" order for most of Louisiana's 4.6 million residents that began Monday evening. He said he's hopeful that compliance with the restrictions will start to shrink daily spikes in new virus cases, particularly those that require hospitalization.

In New Orleans, doctors and hospital officials said they were coping with an increased number of patients needing intensive care and working to avoid the possible overwhelming of their systems. Dr. John Schieffelin, an assistant professor at Tulane's medical school who also practices in the LCMC hospital system in New Orleans, said hospitals are stressed, but coping so far.

"If the numbers keep on doubling every few days, then in a couple of weeks we'll really have a problem again," Schieffelin said Wednesday.

Officials with Ochsner Health system, with facilities across much of south Louisiana, said they were urging staff to conserve personal protective equipment — in some cases safely reusing masks and patients' gowns — to avoid falling short as needs rise.

The Ochsner system had 271 confirmed COVID-19 cases Wednesday and nearly 300 more suspected.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover. But the virus is highly contagious and has caused a global pandemic.

To supplement diminishing hospital space, Louisiana is working to contract with hotels to provide additional hospital beds as needed, Edwards said. Three state parks have been converted into isolation sites that can receive quarantined patients who can't go home, and 26 people were staying at those sites by Tuesday evening, according to the governor's office. Edwards also has asked the Trump administration to set up a military field hospital in the state.

Louisiana, like other states, is scrounging for gloves, masks and ventilators to treat the sick.

"The people that manage logistics for the hospital are just at it 24/7, looking at needs and seeking out supplies," said Dr. Jimmy Ellis, a cancer specialist affiliated with West Jefferson Medical Center outside New Orleans.

Hospitals were getting help from local businesses. A local maker of apparel has turned to making masks, and a local distillery has begun making and donating hand sanitizer, Ochsner CEO Warner Thomas and Chief Medical Officer Robert Hart said during a news conference.

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