BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana will try to combat the racial disparities in coronavirus deaths with a task force aimed at educating at-risk minority communities about the virus’s risks and at conducting long-term research about how to address underlying health gaps between blacks and whites in the state, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Friday.
Data released by the state health department this week showed the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus has disproportionately hit black residents in the state. While African Americans account for one-third of Louisiana’s population, they represent more than 70% of the state’s deaths from COVID-19.
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Edwards attributed the disproportionate rate of deaths in the black community to the state’s existing health gap between African Americans and white residents. He’s also noted that Louisiana’s earliest virus hot spots, particularly the New Orleans area, have a disproportionate number of blacks living there compared with other parts of the state.
“Maybe this is an opportunity, given that this virus, this disease is shining a lot on these disparities,” the Democratic governor said. He added: “Maybe this gives us some opportunity to really drive some change.”
Edwards’ comments came on a solemn Good Friday, where the Catholic governor urged people not to hold the large family crawfish boils and other gatherings that are traditional in the heavily religious state. New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who tested positive for COVID-19, appeared through a video conference call at Edwards’ daily virus briefing to the public.
“I’m pleased to say that I have recovered. I felt the healing hand of God upon me,” the archbishop said before saying a prayer for the state, its medical workers and the governor.
Edwards’ office didn’t say Friday how many people would be on the task force, or who they’ll be. The governor said the group will involve researchers and health experts from Southern University, Xavier University, Louisiana State University, Tulane University, the University of New Orleans, the state health department, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center and nursing schools around Louisiana.
The first step, Edwards said, will be to make sure minority communities “are blanketed with information” about COVID-19. He said the messaging won’t just focus on proper hygiene and physical distancing, but also the particular risks that people with high blood pressure, diabetes and other health conditions face and how they can lessen those risks with medicine and diet. The goal, the governor said, is to “put you in the best possible position to withstand this disease should you contract it.”
More than 19,000 people in Louisiana have confirmed infections of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, about 11% of whom are hospitalized, according to health department data. The number of virus deaths continued climbed to 755 on Friday. While the state has released the percentage of deaths by race, it hasn’t done the same with infection rates. Edwards said private labs aren’t reporting such information to the state, but he’s trying to change that.
For most people, the coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough that resolve in several weeks. But some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can suffer severe symptoms that can be fatal.
Louisiana has seen encouraging signs this week in its fight against the virus outbreak. The rate of new hospitalizations has slowed, and the number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators has decreased, though with a slight uptick Friday. The governor credits people physically distancing from others and avoiding trips away from their homes as much as possible with helping to slow the rate of new infections — and he’s cautioned Louisianans to keep it up.
Last month, Edwards ordered schools closed, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery and shuttered businesses deemed nonessential, such as gyms, hair salons and bars. Those restrictions remain in place through April.
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