Louisiana coronavirus: After slowing in May, COVID-19 activity increases as state reopens

Andrew Capps
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Vials with samples taken for the new coronavirus are seen before they are prepared for RNA testing at the molecular pathology lab at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Thursday, April 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

When Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the reopening of Louisiana, he trumpeted state efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. New cases, deaths and hospitalizations bottomed out in early May.

But in the weeks since the state began reopening, new infections have started to regain speed across the state, according to Louisiana Department of Health data.

New cases of coronavirus in Louisiana peaked in the first week of April at an average of 1,353 a day, before dipping to an average of 323 cases a day in the second week of May, according to state health data.

In the weeks since, the virus has spread 25% faster as the state’s daily average of new cases in the past month has risen to 415 cases a day, state health data show.

The virus is spreading more in Louisiana, but that increase doesn't amount to a surge, said Dr. Joseph Kanter, assistant state health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health.

“I wouldn’t call it a surge, though we’re keeping close watch on it,” Kanter said.

More testing identifies more cases, but there's more going on in Louisiana

State health officials have largely attributed Louisiana’s increase in new cases to larger numbers of tests being reported each day. New tests across the state have grown from an average of about 5,600 per day in the second week of May to just under 8,200 a day in the four weeks since then, and increase of about 44%.

While testing and cases have both increased since early May, the share of test results that come back positive has dropped from 5.7% to 5.1% in the same time span, a decline of more than 10% in the state’s positivity rate.

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Though cases in Louisiana are increasing, the state has been largely spared from summer spikes of coronavirus seen in surrounding states and other areas of the country, including Arizona, where health care capacities are being stretched as thin now as hospitals in the greater New Orleans area were in April.

On Thursday, Florida broke its single day record for new cases of COVID-19, just one week after moving into Phase 2 of reopening on June 5, in step with Louisiana’s reopening.

“We’re not seeing spikes like that, but it’s almost like a high plateau,” Kanter said. “We still have a lot of COVID out there.”

Other states across the South, like Arkansas, South Carolina,  Kentucky and Tennessee, have also seen sudden increases in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. The dynamics of the virus’ spread have confused experts as cases become more regionally concentrated, University of Michigan professor of epidemiology Arnold Monto said last week.

“This virus is much more spotty,” Monto said. “It is so complicated that when people give you a simple answer to this, it’s probably not right.”

More:Why are states seeing a sudden increase in coronavirus cases? Experts have more than one answer

Some areas of Louisiana are seeing troubling trends in new infections

Though increased cases across Louisiana as a whole suggests a greater increase in testing than in new cases, Gov. John Bel Edwards noted last week that he is concerned about increased COVID-19 cases in some areas of the state.

“Sometimes if you just look at the numbers from a high altitude, it obscures what’s going on in certain parts of the state, and that would be the case,” Edwards said of the Alexandria, Lake Charles and Monroe regions, where officials are concerned about a trend of rising cases and COVID-related hospitalizations.

Gov. John Bel Edwards during a May press briefing.

Chief among Edwards’ areas of concern is the 12-parish Monroe region, which led the state in new cases of coronavirus reported each day between June 4 and June 11. During the period, a total of 727 new infections were reported in eight days.

Accounting for population differences, the Monroe area has seen the largest per capita increases in coronavirus cases in the state on all but three of the last 21 days.

The Monroe region initially lagged behind other parts of the state in testing for coronavirus, a problem concentrated in rural parishes that for a time artificially deflated the number of cases there.

The Monroe region sees large number of new infections, hospitalizations

It wasn’t until the second week of May that the Monroe area began to see an average of more than 500 tests a day reported. Once testing in the region climbed past that mark, the number of new infections found there every day doubled.

Monroe’s positivity rate, or the share of completed tests that return a positive result for COVID-19, has declined from 12% in the last week of April to 7% since June 5, a lowering of the region’s positivity rate as more people who are less likely to have the virus are tested.  

More:Gov. Edwards: Louisiana doing 'much, much better' on COVID-19, but 3 regions struggling

More:More than 500 coronavirus cases reported in Louisiana Friday as infection growth continues

But cases there have increased more dramatically than in any other region in the state since the end of Edwards’ stay-home order on May 16. The region reported 1,840 cases in the past four weeks.

In the last week of April and the first week of May, the Monroe region saw an average of 39 new cases of coronavirus a day. But the region has doubled that figure in the weeks since, jumping to an average of 84 cases per day in the first week of June and 80 in the days since June 5, for a total of 987 new cases in June alone.

The troubling increase in COVID-19 cases in the Monroe area has also been accompanied by a worrisome increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19 and similar illnesses recently, though health officials haven’t released regionally specific data on coronavirus hospitalizations.

Still, that combination was enough for Edwards to point to the Monroe region as an area of concern and is typically an indicator of increasing spread, Kanter said.

“There is concern for growing spread there, and the hospital numbers there have gone up, not overwhelmingly, but they have trickled up a little bit, which makes us concerned that it’s not just increased testing, that there is worsening spread,” Kanter said. “Folks there need to know that and need to be taking precautions.”

Acadiana and Alexandria areas seeing COVID-19 cases increase, too

New cases per day in the Acadiana area have seen a similar doubling trend. The region’s daily case increases grew from an average of 19 new cases a day in the last week of April to 43 a day since June 5, marking a sustained increase in the spread of the virus since efforts have begun to reopen.

Much of that increase has come in Lafayette Parish, which saw a limited spread of the virus relative to the state’s other population centers during the early weeks of the pandemic.

Dr. Tina Stefanski looking on as Mayor President Josh Guillory is speaking at the Lafayette Consolidated Gov holds press conference at City Hall. Friday, April 3, 2020.

In the first week of May, Lafayette Parish averaged just four new cases of coronavirus each day. But since June 5, the parish has added an average of 19 cases a day.

That growing trend has meant more cases of coronavirus have been found in the past five weeks than were found in Lafayette Parish in the first nine weeks of the outbreak in Louisiana.

But without a corresponding increase in COVID-related hospitalizations in the Lafayette region, health officials are less concerned about increasing spread or a potential surge of cases.

Kanter said Lafayette’s increase was more a function of expanded and more targeted testing of higher risk people

“On Thursday, they had 43 COVID positive patients in hospitals in all of Region 4 (Lafayette area), which has been relatively flat, and the percent positivity has not really come up dramatically,” Kanter said. “So the general feeling is that the increase in case counts in the Lafayette region is likely reflective of the increased testing that’s happening and not indicative of worsening spread in that region.”

The 8-parish Alexandria area has also been a point of concern for health officials in recent weeks. Though it is the smallest of the state’s nine health regions, the Central Louisiana area has added more cases in the past week that the 300,000-person region reported Louisiana's second highest per capita spread since June 5 at 101 new cases per 100,000 residents, behind only Monroe.

Dr. Alex Billioux speaks at a press conference to discuss testing statistics and contact tracing pertaining to COVID-10, Friday, May 8, 2020, at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Dr. Alex Billioux, the state health department’s leading coronavirus expert, pointed to Alexandria last week as an area of problematic growth in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, a statistic that the health department does not publicly release.

Billioux said he believes the increased cases and hospitalizations in the area reflect "an increase in people from congregant settings.”

New cases reported each day in Central Louisiana have also doubled, from an average of 21 in the second week of May to 40 per day since June 1. However, daily tests reported there have more than tripled in the same time frame from an average of 180 per day to just under 600 a day in June, reducing the region’s positive test rate from 12% in the second week of May to 6% since June 5.

Recent increases in new cases have been much milder in the Shreveport area, which saw a greater impact from the virus earlier on at the end of March has averaged 39 new cases a day since May 16, excluding a large back log increase of 445 cases added on May 21 that affected the Shreveport region more than anywhere else in the state.

Shreveport, Houma areas continues to see decline in COVID-19 activity

The Shreveport region’s daily average is down to less than half of its peak case reports of an average of 86 new infections a day between March 30 and April 12, during the height of the virus’ spread.

The spread has been similar for the Houma/Thibodeaux area, which was hard hit early on as infections took hold in nursing homes. Those infections caused a faster increase in cases than in every other region but New Orleans.

Now the Houma/Thibodeaux area has one of the state's lowest rates of new infections.

New cases of coronavirus in the region have followed a steady decline since peaking at an average of 134 per day during the worst period of the virus’ spread in Louisiana in the first two weeks of April.

Kanter said the overall increasing trend in cases across the state and concerning growth in cases and hospitalizations don’t necessarily make the past week a bad one for Louisiana.

However, the activity does show the state is still a long way from leaving the coronavirus pandemic behind and could slip back into greater spread if residents fail to keep up precautions that helped reduce the virus’ spread in April.

"We are at a tenuous point where all it would take for us to resume increasing rates as a state is for people to act callously,” Kanter said. “There’s enough COVID in the community, enough kindling on the fire, that it doesn’t take much for that to burn larger.”

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