BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Gov. John Bel Edward says the state has seen “modest but sustained improvements” in the number of cases, hospitalizations, and positivity rates over the past nine to ten days, but that there is more work to do.
Edwards said the data shows his mandatory mask order and additional virus restrictions have been effective. On Thursday afternoon, he signed an order extending Phase Two for at least another three weeks, along with the mask mandate and bar restrictions.
“You can see that it was about two weeks after those additional mitigation measures were put into place that we actually started turning those numbers around and started showing this modest improvement that has been consistent, at least up til now.”
That assessment comes during a regularly scheduled briefing Thursday on the heels of a legal victory in a lawsuit over the governor’s emergency orders.
A Louisiana judge Thursday upheld Edwards’ orders as legal and enforceable, rejecting claims from Jefferson Parish business owners that the Democratic governor overstepped his legal authority in enacting the coronavirus rules.
“This is not the last legal challenge that has been put in place, but I’m confident that I am doing what is necessary, that we are following the science, we are following the data, that we are implementing best practices and recommendations that come from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the CDC and so forth, and that I’m doing it pursuant to the authority I have as governor to respond to this public health emergency as I’m authorized to do by the constitution and by statutory law here in Louisiana.
And it’s not just that I’m authorized to do it, because we’re talking about lives, I believe that I’m obligated to do these things as well. Doesn’t make it easy,” said Edwards. “Nothing easy about any of the work that we’re doing, but it is actually essential, it is legal, and we now know without any doubt it is effective. That’s not just some academic exercise. It’s not theoretical. We know that it works.”
As of Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Health was reporting a total of 127,246 positive cases of COVID-19 and 4,028 deaths from the coronavirus in the state.
Edwards said 94 percent of the 1,345 newly confirmed cases reported Thursday were community spread, and that 94 percent of those specimens were collected with in the last week.
He went on to note that the 1,457 patients in hospitals across the state is down 14 from the day before and that it had dropped by 16 the day before that.
“What we’ve seen over the last nine or ten days are modest but sustained improvements in our numbers related to cases, hospitalizations, and positivity. I can tell you all of those still are unacceptably high, but it beats the trajectory that we had been on for several weeks and really going back to the Memorial Day activities. So basically, from the middle of June, going forward. We’re doing better, but we’ve got some work left to do.”
“We remain number one in the country in per capita cases. More than 2.5 percent of the state’s population has been infected, has had COVID-19. And again, that’s just based on positive test results, the confirmed cases. We know there are a lot more have had it but remained asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic and have never been tested.”
In fact, the governor said 56,000 tests have now been conducted at federal surge testing sites that just wrapped up in Baton Rouge and many who tested positive were asymptomatic.
“We actually saw many asymptomatic people come in to be tested and they actually found out that they were positive and we would expect that to happen because the estimates are that somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of individuals who get COVID will be asymptomatic.”
Edwards said that is what makes this particular pandemic and public emergency so hard to manage and to control.
“Because these asymptomatic people are much less likely to be tested to know that they are both infected and infectious and they will transmit the disease to others. Which, by the way, is the very reason that we have mask mandate in place. The mask is a proxy for a test result. There really isn’t another way to manage this disease and try to get on top of the numbers.”
Edwards urged anyone who has been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus or who have had symptoms to get tested.
The governor said he was happy to learn that Title 32, which allows the use of the National Guard in Louisiana, has been extended through the end of the year. However, Edwards expressed disappointment that Louisiana and most other states will have to pay 25 percent of the cost. Texas and Florida will not be required to pay a share of the cost for having help from the National Guard in their states.
“I don’t begrudge Texas and Florida. I’m not upset that they’re getting 100 percent coverage. But I will tell you there is not a rational basis to distinguish between Louisiana and those two states when we have ridden the crests of both the first surge and the second surge, as evidenced by the fact that we’ve had more cases per capita than any other state,” said Edwards.
The National Guard has been helping with everything from receiving and warehousing PPE and equipment to helping out at food banks to running mobile testing sites and assisting with nursing home strike teams.
The cost-sharing requirement will add up to a little over $10 million through December 31, which breaks down to at least $2.5 million per month, according to Edwards. He said he will be working with the state’s congressional delegation and “re-urging” the White House to extend Louisiana’s coverage at 100 percent through the end of the year.
Edwards also said Thursday that it is time for those who are able to find jobs and go back to work, especially now that federal pandemic unemployment compensation has expired and Congress has yet to come up with a compromise to continue the funding.
For months, the unemployed had been receiving the $600 a week in federal jobless aid on top of their state benefit. But the federal payment expired last week. Congress is engaged in prolonged negotiations over renewing the federal benefit, which would likely be extended at a reduced level.
That’s why Edwards says Louisiana is reinstituting work search requirements for unemployment benefits.
“We know that the state benefit is $247 a week and people simply are not gonna be able to survive on that,” Edwards said during his coronavirus briefing on Thursday. “It is time to get those who can back into a job and to find work, and there are several thousand jobs available in Louisiana.”
Work search requirements for unemployment benefits have been suspended under the governor’s emergency coronavirus orders, but they will resume on August 9. Under the reinstated requirements, recipients must show at least three potential employers that they have applied to each week to continue receiving benefits. There are still some exceptions, specifically for people who have COVID-19 or who are in a business closed by COVID-19 reopening guidelines.
Edwards said the reinstated work search requirement will also help take the strain off the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which has dwindled from $1.1 billion in March to just $270 million. The taxes brought in during the last quarter, he said, were only $12 million — not enough to help replenish the fund.
“We can’t pay benefits if the fund is insolvent,” Edwards said. “The only two ways to keep it solvent absent some funding from Congress in Phase Four of the coronavirus assitance that they’re negotiating right now is to either cross that threshold whereby the law imposes an increase on payroll tax on employers in order to replenish the fund, or you borrow the money from the federal government – in which case you have to put a surcharge on employers in order to ensure the federal government you’re going to be able to pay it back. Either way, that’s a tax increase or a functional tax increase. We don’t want to do that.”
The governor said the state is asking for help from its congressional delegation, as well as working through the National Governor’s Association and directly with the White House in order to get their assistance on the matter.
“We do encourage people, however, as they are able to do so, to re-enter the workforce. That’s going to be critical for them and their families as well as the state’s economy.”