BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Gov. John Bel Edwards and state health and hospital leaders focused a large part of his weekly briefing Friday on Louisiana’s response to the ongoing fourth surge of COVID-19 cases on the troubling surge in cases among children across the state.
Over the past week, 1,700 cases have been reported among those aged zero to four and 5,700 new cases have been reported among those between the ages of five and 17, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health.
“It’s all the more reason that we have to do what we can to protect kids. And we need to be very mindful of the fact that while 2.2 million Louisianans have received the shot, not a single Louisianian under 12 has received the vaccine.”
Edwards noted that those cases among children up to age 18 account for 28% of all new cases the state is reporting and that more cases were reported by Louisiana schools during the first week of this school year than were reported during any week of last school year.
During the week of August 9 through 15, Edwards said school districts have reported a total of 2,444 cases were reported among K through 12 students and staff. And that, the governor noted, is with only one-third of the state’s districts reporting. More are expected to begin reporting as classes start in those districts.
What’s more, State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said during the briefing that the positivity rates among children are “quite high,” indicating more children have been infected than are being confirmed through tests reported to the state. The positivity rate among children aged zero to four was 17.5 percent and 28 percent among children aged five to 17. Both are higher than the current statewide average of 15.5 percent.
“That’s a marker of a lot of disease in these age groups. There were myths earlier on in the pandemic that kids don’t get COVID and don’t spread COVID. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our kids are absolutely getting COVID, absolutely spreading COVID,” Kanter said, citing a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed kids are highly effective vectors for spreading the virus to the rest of their households.
“There is a very significant disease burden in this population,” Edwards said. “Transmission is very high. Which is why the CDC has made the recommendation for masking in schools universal. Students, teachers, staff, visitors. It’s why it was also the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Simply put, we cannot keep our schools open or our kids safe today without masks.
The Democratic governor enacted the statewide mask mandate earlier this month for all indoor public spaces — including school campuses from kindergarten through college — no matter whether someone is vaccinated, as Louisiana saw COVID-19 infections surge. The mandate will be in place through Sept. 1 and may be extended, if necessary.
“It is the only way that we have a reasonable shot to keep schools open and kids safe,” Edwards said Wednesday on his monthly radio show.
“I urge you to remove the politics, to remove the arguments from this discussion,” said Dr. Kimberly Mukerjee, who is a pediatrician at Children’s Pediatrics and board member of the Louisiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and joined Friday’s briefing. “Because no one in this room or in this community or in this state would argue that the life of a child should be anything other than prioritized and that that child should be safe and thrive in their childhood. And we as pediatricians are here to help ensure that that happens.”
Friday’s briefing comes after a chaotic Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting in Baton Rouge Wednesday that ended abruptly when a raucous crowd of angry parents packed the hearing room and refused to put on face coverings.
The BESE board was supposed to discuss whether it agrees with an opinion from Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry that suggests Edwards’ face-covering requirement can’t apply to schools. The attorney general, who frequently spars with the governor, said only the education board and state lawmakers have the authority to issue such a mandate for schools.
Speaking as a pediatrician and on behalf of the more than 700 pediatricians in the Louisiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians, Mukerjee said one of the most important ways to ensure safety is universal masking in schools.
“When we have children admitted for a preventable illness, we’ve failed our children,” Dr. Mukerjee said. “But it’s more than that. When our children are falling behind in education, when our toddlers are unable to reach their developmental milestones and are falling behind, in fact, because they can’t access really early interventions, we’ve failed.”
Louisiana has slipped to number two among states for COVID-19 cases behind Mississippi for new cases, but Dr. Kanter says the number of new cases reported daily in Louisiana continues to be at historic highs. Louisiana is now averaging 109 new cases per 100,000 residents per day. The CDC’s highest risk category is for locations that have over 100 new cases per 100,000 residents per week.
“And now yet again for a third week straight, we’ve exceeded that mark daily. Just a lot of COVID, it remains true, just a ton of COVID being spread across Louisiana right now.”
The rate of new COVID cases being diagnosed has increased by about 300 percent over the past month, and while the statewide percent positivity rate did go down slightly this week to 15.5 percent but, Kanter says, “really anything above 5 percent is a concern.”
There was relatively good news in Friday’s hospitalization data, as well.
“This is thankfully the second day we were able to report that we haven’t made a new record after 16 straight days of breaking records,” but Kanter noted that the 2,999 COVID-19 patients in the hospital as of Thursday are still 2,000 more than the previous peak reached in January “and it still is causing tremendous problems for hospitals and impacting the care that they’re able to provide to patients.”
That’s why 58 hospitals have reached out for help and are taking measures such as suspending non-elective procedures and limiting the number of patients they can accept from other hospitals in order to try to preserve capacity, but Kanter said these measures “have real consequences, and not just for COVID patients.”
According to the Louisiana Department of Health, 91% of patients currently hospitalized and 80 percent of the deaths across the state are among those not fully vaccinated.
Gov. Edwards said the state is continuing to work to expand the availability of and accessibility to monoclonal antibody therapy, which has been used effectively to treat those who test positive and have symptoms to keep them from becoming sick enough to require hospitalization.
“Our healthcare professionals, they need a break. They are completely exhausted. That’s physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, emotionally exhausted, and things are getting tougher, not easier, as we speak.”
The LDH also reported 5,922 new cases Friday and 67 more deaths Friday, for a total of 649,915 cases statewide and 11,918 deaths to date.
While the number of cases and overall positivity rate might be showing signs of slowing, Kanter noted during Friday’s briefing that deaths are a lagging indicator that can sometimes take weeks and even months to become clear.
The data show total COVID deaths in the state reported to date in August increased by 328 percent compared to June, and by 1,457 percent among those under 40.
“All that is to say, this fourth surge has been incredibly taxing and it’s causing real pain and suffering for families across Louisiana in ways that we won’t even be able to quantify for at least a few more weeks.”