NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Louisiana rose sharply Saturday as officials awaited the arrival of hundreds of ventilators and prepared to convert a New Orleans convention center into a facility that could hold thousands of patients so that hospitals in the hard-hit region are not soon overrun.
The state Department of Health on Saturday said more than 12,400 have tested positive for the virus, an increase of roughly 2,200 cases from the day before. The death toll in the state from COVID-19 stood at 409 people.
Of the more than 1,700 patients who have been hospitalized with the virus, 571 were sick enough to require ventilators to help them breathe, the Health Department said on its webpage.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said the federal government will be sending “an additional 200 ventilators from the federal Strategic National Stockpile” in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The state was previously sent 150 ventilators from the SNS.
“They are expected to arrive soon,” Edwards said in a statement. “We are grateful to both President Donald Trump and Vice President (Mike) Pence for keeping Louisiana at the forefront of this fight against COVID-19 and appreciate them understanding the necessity of these ventilators for the survival of our people, especially in light of today’s sobering numbers.”
Edwards has ordered schools closed, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery and shuttered businesses deemed nonessential like gyms, hair salons and bars through the end of April in hopes of lessening the state’s outbreak.
Meanwhile, officials are preparing for Monday’s opening in New Orleans of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which is being converted into a medical support facility to ease the burden of local hospitals.
The plan is for the most critical patients to remain in hospitals, while those with less severe symptoms can be sent to the convention center for care.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
During a tour of the facility Saturday, Joe Kanter, assistant state health officer with the Louisiana Department of Health, told reporters the next three weeks are “incredibly critical.”
“The next three weeks are going to determine how effectively we flatten the curve,” he said. “And remember, flattening the curve means lowering the surge of patients in the hospitals, and that’s going to be the main factor in how many lives we’re going to be able to save.”
Meghan Maslanka is an emergency and disaster physician with University Medical Center of New Orleans who’s been contracted by the state to work at the convention center. She said the idea is for the convention center to take pressure off hospitals and emergency rooms by taking in patients who are stable but need some medical care, such as oxygen or help getting up and down.
“This is more for the medically stable patient who is on the recovery end of illness,” she said.
Part of the facility’s purpose is to also keep COVID-19-positive patients away from the general population.
“For somebody who doesn’t have a safe place to go and avoid transmission to others, we have them stay with us for the duration of their infectious period,” she said.
The setup inside the convention center is divided into pods of roughly 14 to 15 beds per pod, and eight pods making up a “wing.”
“We’re starting to open with eight separate wings, so that’s roughly 1,000 beds, with a plan to augment to 2,000 beds, and if needed, up to 3,000 beds,” Maslanka said.
All patient intake will be directly from local hospitals, rather than there being an open-door intake like how a traditional hospital emergency room operates.
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who was also on the tour, said that “because the testing has been ramped up so much, these next couple weeks will be a very telling story.”
“Hopefully, we’ll see it level off and start to taper off,” Nungesser said. “If we don’t, God help us, because as you know, the equipment and places like this will be maxed out.”
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