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Increased testing shows ballooning virus cases in Louisiana

March 25, 2020 GMT
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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards gestures to a monitor featuring statewide statistics as he speaks at a press conference regarding the spread of COVID-19 in the state, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. Nearly 1,800 people in the state were confirmed to have the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, according to figures from Louisiana's health department, an increase of 400 from the previous day. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards gestures to a monitor featuring statewide statistics as he speaks at a press conference regarding the spread of COVID-19 in the state, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. Nearly 1,800 people in the state were confirmed to have the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, according to figures from Louisiana's health department, an increase of 400 from the previous day. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana scrambled to ready makeshift hospitals and track down ventilators as the steady uptick of coronavirus cases continued Wednesday in a state that had already been one of the most infected per capita.

Nearly 1,800 people in the state were confirmed to have the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, according to figures from Louisiana’s health department, an increase of 400 from the previous day. Sixty-five Louisiana residents have died, only two weeks after the state’s first positive test, the data shows. The disease has been confirmed in three-quarters of Louisiana’s 64 parishes.

President Donald Trump granted a federal disaster declaration for Louisiana on Tuesday night, acknowledging the scale of Louisiana’s outbreak and unlocking millions of dollars in federal aid for the state’s response. The designation, which had been sought by Gov. John Bel Edwards, adds Louisiana to a list that includes California, Washington and New York to get reimbursement for certain expenses dating back to Jan. 20 and other forms of assistance.

Louisiana has the third-highest rate of confirmed virus cases per capita, Edwards said. He warned that the state could run out of ventilators for patients in the New Orleans area within the first week of April.

“This virus has spread across the state of Louisiana. This is real. And our state and everyone in it needs to take it very seriously,” the Democratic governor said Wednesday. “The trajectory of our case growth continues to be very alarming. We have not begun to flatten the curve yet.”

Edwards issued a statewide “stay at home” order for most of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents that began Monday evening. He said he was hopeful that compliance with the restrictions would start to shrink daily spikes in new virus cases, particularly those that require hospitalization.

In New Orleans, doctors and hospital officials said they were coping with an increased number of patients needing intensive care and working to avoid the possible overwhelming of their systems. Dr. John Schieffelin, an assistant professor at Tulane’s medical school who also practices in the LCMC hospital system in New Orleans, said hospitals are stressed, but coping so far.

“If the numbers keep on doubling every few days, then in a couple of weeks we’ll really have a problem again,” Schieffelin said.

Officials with Ochsner Health system, with facilities across much of south Louisiana, said they were urging staff to conserve personal protective equipment — in some cases reusing masks and patients’ gowns — to avoid falling short as needs rise.

“Clusters” of coronavirus cases have been identified at six Louisiana nursing homes, the health department said, refusing to provide a full list of the facilities.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover. But the virus is highly contagious and has caused a global pandemic.

Louisiana, like other states, is scrounging for gloves, masks and ventilators to treat the sick.

“The people that manage logistics for the hospital are just at it 24/7, looking at needs and seeking out supplies,” said Dr. Jimmy Ellis, a cancer specialist affiliated with West Jefferson Medical Center outside New Orleans.

Ventilators were particularly in short supply.

Even with expected shipments of 300 ventilators to the New Orleans region over the next week, the area will remain an estimated 600 short, Edwards said. Hospitals are considering ways to retrofit existing breathing devices. Meanwhile, Edwards said Apple CEO Tim Cook was donating 100,000 respirator masks to Louisiana.

To supplement diminishing hospital space, Louisiana is negotiating with hotels to provide additional hospital beds as needed, and may use the New Orleans convention center to house patients who need less intensive medical care, Edwards said. Three state parks have been converted into isolation sites that can receive quarantined patients who can’t go home.

Hospitals were getting help from local businesses. A local maker of apparel has turned to making masks, and a local distillery has begun making and donating hand sanitizer, according to Ochsner officials.

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