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GOP senator warns special session likely will pit 'emotions versus science' over COVID-19

William Taylor Potter
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Louisiana State Senator Fred Mills is among the honorees at the upcoming Lafayette Public Library Foundation Annual Awards Luncheon.

A special legislative session called by Republican leaders likely will pit "emotions versus science" over concerns about Gov. John Bel Edwards' orders in response to COVID-19, the GOP chair of the state Senate health committee said Thursday.

Sen. Fred Mills, a Republican who represents parts of St. Landry, St. Martin and Iberia parishes, said he shares Edwards' concerns about the public's ability to provide input for lawmakers. And he said he expects a polarized debate over COVID-19 restrictions.

"I think that's going to be a huge debate over the next couple of weeks," said Mills, the chair of the Senate's Health and Welfare Committee. "I think you're going to see a lot of emotions versus science. I think you're going to see a lot of business interests versus medical interests."

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The Legislature's Republican leadership called the 30-day special session, which begins Monday, in part to "address the continued proclamations issued by the governor during the pandemic and what many see as an imbalance of power," according to a written statement from Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales 

In a Feb. 7, 2020 file photo, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget adviser, left; House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, center; and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, speak ahead of a meeting of Louisiana's income forecasting panel in Baton Rouge. Louisiana's income forecasting panel planned to quantify on Monday, May 11, 2020 just how deeply the coronavirus outbreak has hurt the state's economy as officials begin to put together next year's budget.

Lawmakers also listed Hurricane Laura relief and the state's dwindling unemployment benefit trust fund as priorities for the session.

Edwards questioned the Legislature's plans for the session, saying the public's access will be restricted because of the pandemic and removing COVID-19 restrictions "would seriously jeopardize the lives of our people and the gains we have made."

Mills, a frequent ally of Edwards, said he's had numerous angry phone calls from constituents regarding the restrictions, an issue he said has become extremely political.

"When I tell constituents that we're pretty much following the federal guidelines of the Trump administration, I find the politics gets real crazy," Mills said during a panel for Beacon Community Connection’s 2020 South Louisiana Community Health Summit. "So a Democratic governor is following what a Republican administration is doing? I say, 'Yes, following it to a T.'"

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Also on the panel with Mills was Dr. Tina Stefanski, the Acadiana regional director for the state's Office of Public Health.

Dr. Tina Stefanski, Acadiana regional health director for the Louisiana Department of Health, speaking at press conference at Lafayette City Hall. Friday, June 19, 2020.

Stefanski said she has met with Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the leaders of the White House's COVID-19 response, and Birx has praised Edwards and the state for following the guidance.

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"We're all working toward the same goal," Stefanski said. "Hopefully politics isn't something that won't be considered when people are thinking about what should or shouldn't happen in this next session."

Mills said he's received many calls recently about nursing home visitation, which was previously not allowed. When Edwards announced Phase 3 of reopening, he said visitation at these facilities would still be restricted. Mills said he fielded several angry calls about the restriction.

"The emotions were spilling over," Mills said. 

Edwards announced changes in the visitation rules last week after the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released additional guidance.

The new guidance allows outdoor visitation with required social distancing at nursing homes across the state, and it will allow indoor visits for nursing homes in parishes with "no more than 10% test positivity" that have not had any new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks.

Mitigation measures, like face coverings and social distancing, will still be required under the new federal guidance to prevent further spread, and visitors will be required to undergo screening, such as temperature checks, before entering a facility.

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The key during the special session will be striking a balance between the concerns of businesses and the safety of the public, Mills said.

Stefanski said she understands that there are many people around the state who want life to return to the pre-COVID normal, and she said officials will have to reason with residents to ensure people follow restrictions and guidelines.

"If we don't use a measured approach, we certainly could end up in a position where we're back to shutting things down and to limiting things like nursing home visitations that are just getting ready to open back up," Stefanski said.