Challenges highlight discussion in statewide COVID-19 forum

John DuPont
Plaquemine Post South

BATON ROUGE – A vigilant effort from all residents will be the only way Louisiana can halt the rapid spread of coronavirus, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday night.

Edwards appeared along with state officials and clergy members and others on a forum that aired statewide on LPB, numerous local TV and radio stations and social media.

He emphasized the uphill battle Louisiana faces after the total number of cases had spiked to nearly 1,200 in less than two weeks.

The total represents the fastest rate of growth in the nation and puts Louisiana third in the nation in number of cases per capita, he told moderator Sally Ann Roberts, a former WWL-TV news anchor.

The soaring figure validates his decision to impose a shelter-at-home order that took effect 5 p.m. Monday.

It’s completely opposite from life in Louisiana and how we live and it’s a major adjustment, but it’s necessary,” Edwards said. “We need to make this adjustment now so we can get to the other side.”

He said the situation will likely worsen before it improves, which means that areas without any cases should not become prone to a false sense of security.

The number of tests and the rapid spread could likely leave every parish with coronavirus patients, Edwards said.

The virus is here, and everyone needs to act as if they have it,” he said. “The only way we will get past this is to take the mitigation strategy seriously, which means we stay home, stop the spread and save lives.”

Roberts compared the virus to the dire hardship he faced during the August 2016 flood that ravaged in southeastern Louisiana.

The coronavirus poses a different scenario, Edwards said.

When people were watching the rainfall, there was nothing they could do to stop it,” he said. “But we have everything to do with whether we are going to flatten the curve.

We have to slow the spread so the graph doesn’t peak too quickly and too high because that will overwhelm our capacity to deliver healthcare we need to flatten the curve,” Edwards said. “That’s how we’re going to save lives and how we’re going to get through this in much better shape.”

The delivery of healthcare has taken a step forward through the increased testing for the virus.

The availability of commercial tests has allowed for reporting of more than 4,000 exams, while the state lab has increased capacity for testing by 35 percent, according to Dr. Alex Billoux, Assistant Secretary for the Louisiana Department of Health.

It has really enabled us to answer critical questions that make an impact on care,” he said. “It helps us decide of someone needs to be quarantined, or if they need to be moved to a lower level of care.”

Supportive care is available, but the best form remains uncertain, said Dr. Catherine O’Neill, Infectious Disease Control Specialist for Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.

Medications patients currently use in America are part of a clinical trial to how to treat the virus.

A legitimate vaccine would likely not surface for at least a year, O’Neill said.

We have to determine if it’s safe and effective before we give the vaccine,” she said.

The uncertainty for businesses and employees poses almost as much stress as the illness.

The pandemic and subsequent closures of restaurants, bars and other businesses triggered a surge in unemployment, which has affected workers in every area of the state.

My heart goes out to them and I know this is a difficult situation, and obviously we’re going to do everything in our capacity to help them,” Gov. Edwards said. “We want to stand our economy back up and get people working again, but our first order of priority is to limit this spread.”

The state received more than 71,000 applications for unemployment relief as of midnight March 21. That number far exceeded the weekly average of 1,400-1,500 jobless claims prior to the outbreak.

Our capacity is stretched thin,” said Kimberly Lewis Robinson, Secretary for the State Department of Revenue.

Displaced workers may not have to wait long for their first benefit check. The state began the processing phase this week, after Gov. Edwards waived the one-week waiting period which normally applies.

Emergency food benefits could come soon, Congress has not approved the issuance of D-SNAP benefits, also known as “disaster food stamps, which normally become available after hurricanes or floods, said Marketa Walters, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

We’re used to disaster food stamps and we think that’s what it is, but it isn’t D-SNAP, which Congress has not yet approved,” she said.

The state will open SNAP to those who lost their jobs and now at home.

Displaced workers can access SNAP information by texting 898211 and texting GETSNAP, Walters said.

On the education front, Edwards said he hopes to keep TOPS fully funded for the seniors who expect to graduate later this spring.

He did not rule out the fiscal challenges it could face.

I have every expectation that we will find a way to fully fund the program, but there’s no doubt we’re going to have a lot of challenges,” he said. “I’m working with commissioners to minimalize turbulence in TOPS to make sure that those able to participate next year will be able to do just that.”

Dr. Sam Tobert of the National Baptist Convention of America International and Bishop Michael Duca of the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge both emphasized prayer during the unprecedented hardships.

I suggest to people of faith that they spend more time on daily basis feeding themselves with scriptures from the Bible to see positive things and positive outcomes, so that they see that the God of the bible is the God of today,” he said.

Outreach is another vital element, Duca said.

Most of my priests are either trying to stream Mass or go online or conducting conference calls, and even doing chat rooms,” he said. “The Pope and pastors do a lot of good work using old technology such as prayer trees through phone – all kinds of ways clergy are trying to help us all stay connected,”