BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that he expects to issue a new emergency proclamation next week rather than extend the current Phase 2 orders and mask mandate, which have already been extended with modifications multiple times since the summer.
The latest orders are set to expire on Wednesday, March 3. The governor will announce details on Tuesday.
While Edwards will not be ready to announce exactly what those orders will look like until after he gets a detailed briefing and recommendation from the Louisiana Department of Health and the Office of Public Health, he did say he anticipates there will be “new features,” based on how the data appears to be trending now.
“One of the things that I’m most gratified about is that typically you just look at the trends and quite often, as soon as things start looking better, people start saying, ‘Okay, you’ve got to lift restrictions now and do this, that and the other.’ Well, if you have a really high baseline, the fact that you might have a week or two of improving trends doesn’t mean that you’re in a materially better place. But when you have lower baselines and good trends, that’s when you can feel confident about moving forward and it appears to me that that’s what we’re going to see.”
The hint at what is next for coronavirus restrictions in Louisiana comes as vaccinations continue to be administered and as cases statewide and around the country continue to decline.
State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said Thursday the statewide percent positivity rate has remained flat at 5% since last week, and while the winter storms significantly slowed testing efforts, “by other indicators like hospitalizations and so forth, there no question we’re going in the right direction.”
The LDH reported 779 new cases Thursday, bringing the total to 427,689. There were 679 COVID-19 patients in hospitals around the state, down from a peak of 2,069 in early January. Of those, 106 are in Northwest Louisiana hospitals.
Kanter said cases in Louisiana’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities are also at their lowest number of new cases among residents since the coronavirus first spiked in the state back in April, with just 43 new cases over a seven-day period.
While that is an encouraging sign that efforts to vaccinate the most at risk for the virus are working as intended, Kanter warned that health officials remain concerned about the variants.
“And this continues to be an iceberg scenario, with the relatively little amount of genomic sequencing that’s done in this country, when you have some identified cases, you know you have more we just haven’t formally identified.”
To date, Kanter says the state has confirmed 18 cases of the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 variant otherwise known as the UK variant in regions 1 (Greater New Orleans), 4 (Acadiana), and 7 (Northwest), with another 50 suspected cases pending confirmation with the CDC in those regions, plus 5 (Southwest) and 6 (Central). Nationwide, just under 2,000 cases of the UK variant have been identified in 45 states, but Kanter believes it’s safe to bet it is already present in all 50 states.
“That’s all the reason to continue with our mitigation measures,” Kanter said, including masking and social distancing. “We know this variant is growing, we know it’s circulating, we know it’s transmitting. We need to do all we can now to continue to suppress transmission so that we don’t give it a foothold. and the way this plays out, if we do a good job of that and suppress transmission enough and buy us enough time to get enough vaccine out there, we can avert what we fear might be another spike.”
There are no confirmed cases of the B.1.351 variant known as the South African variant in Louisiana, but it has been identified in 14 states, including Texas. No cases of the P1 variant known as the Brazilian variant have been identified in Lousiana but it has turned up in four states, including Oklahoma.
Vaccination distribution efforts are picking up again following last week’s winter storms. The Louisiana Department of Health updates COVID-19 vaccination data on Mondays and Thursdays at Noon. As of the latest update, 925,991 total doses had been administered around the state, including 332,415 completed two-dose series, according to the LDH. Just over 68,000 doses have been administered since Monday.
Louisiana was supposed to get around 80,000 doses last week, but the majority were delayed because of icy and snowy weather across the country. Those vaccines have now arrived, and State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said the state expects to get another 97,650 Pfizer and Moderna doses next week.
If the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine gets Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA over the weekend, another 37-38,000 doses of that new vaccine could be on the way and Kanter said if that comes through, it will be the state’s biggest allocation to date.