BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Gov. John Bel Edwards gave his annual end of the year address from the Governor’s Mansion Thursday, tackling everything from the state’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Ida and other natural disasters to COVID-19, defending his plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to Louisiana’s immunization schedule for schools and colleges.
The Democratic governor also shared his first detailed comments about what maps he’d like to see lawmakers draw in next year’s redistricting session, backing the creation of a second majority-minority U.S. House district among Louisiana’s six congressional districts.
Edwards noted that one-third of Louisiana’s more than 4.6 million residents are Black. He said it would be fair to ensure one-third of the U.S. House districts reflect that.
“Obviously, if you want to talk about fairness and making sure that the maps reflect the reality, what the situation is on the ground, that should certainly be our goal, and I’m hopeful that we’re going to be able to get there,” Edwards said in response to a question at the wide-ranging, end-of-year news conference.
Gov. Edwards also said he believes Lafayette City Judge Michelle Odinet should resign after video surfaced earlier this week that captured people repeatedly using racial slurs inside her home.
On the state’s disaster recovery efforts, the governor said he expects federal regulations in mid-January for the $595 million in federal disaster recovery block grant aid Louisiana is receiving from Congress for 2020′s Hurricane Laura. He said the state is developing its draft housing assistance plan to submit for approval once the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development releases its rules governing the aid. Edwards also pledged to continue to ask President Joe Biden’s administration and Congress to pass more aid, seeing more is needed to help rebuild and repair damaged housing in southwest Louisiana.
Edwards said 11,500 people with home damage from Hurricane Ida, which ravaged southeast Louisiana when it struck in August, remain living in hotels with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The state also has deployed 2,500 temporary trailers to the region.
“I hope and pray this coming year will be kinder to our state,” Edwards said.
On the coronavirus, the governor urged people to get the coronavirus vaccine in a state where fewer than half its residents are fully immunized against the COVID-19 illness, particularly as Louisiana sees an increasing number of cases from the omicron variant of the virus. Edwards also encouraged those already vaccinated to get a booster dose of the shot, saying only 25% of those eligible have gotten a booster so far.
The governor also pushed back on “conspiracy theories that have been advanced and absolute misinformation” about the coronavirus and vaccines.
“How great it would be if the people who have spent so much time, effort, and energy trying to undermine the public’s confidence in vaccines … into promoting the vaccinations? You know, we’d be much further along.”
As of Wednesday, the Louisiana Department of Health had confirmed 778,542 cases of COVID-19 and 14,912 deaths from the coronavirus since the first case was confirmed in the state on March 9, 2020, at beginning of the pandemic. More than 500,000 of those cases and 8,052 deaths of those deaths were recorded in 2021.
The state saw two surges of COVID-19 in 2021, with the first peaking in January and the second in August. It was during that second wave that a record number of patients were hospitalized, peaking at 3,022 on August 17.
The first COVID-19 vaccinations were made available in Louisiana on December 14, 2020, one year ago Wednesday. As of Monday, more than 2.29 million people in Louisiana were vaccinated, nearing 50 percent of the state’s population. The LDH just opened applications for the Louisiana Teen Vax Campaign, seeking “youth ambassadors” to help improve vaccination rates among their age group and teach their peers about the importance of being vaccinated.
But Edwards’ efforts to increase the state’s vaccination rates have repeatedly run into resistance. Attorney General Jeff Landry and a Republican state lawmaker filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to block Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plans to add the COVID-19 vaccine to Louisiana’s immunization schedule for schools and colleges.
“We talked about this from the time the vaccines were announced that if and when the FDA approved them, they would be added to the vaccines just like other vaccines have been added over decades, by the way,” Edwards said. “And there’s not a different process that was followed here. Over decades. Where would we be today with respect to measles and polio and so many other things if this had been the response of so many people at that time?”
Edwards said he does not believe Landry has stated a valid reason for challenging the way the rule was promulgated in the process of adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the schedule and he believes it will survive the court challenge.
The governor also said that he will propose to lawmakers to spend the remaining $1.4 billion in unspent federal pandemic aid available to the state on water and sewer system improvements, transportation projects, broadband internet upgrades and another infusion of cash into the state’s unemployment trust fund to pay benefits. Lawmakers will decide how to use the cash in the regular legislative session that begins in March.
During the address, Gov. Edwards also thanked the state’s workforce as well as the private sector workforce, especially first responders, doctors, nurses, and EMTs, as well as the state’s service members who have assisted in COVID response, while thousands more are deployed overseas on natural security missions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.