Edwards worries about backsliding as virus deaths top 1,000
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards worries too many people are newly disobeying his stay-home order and putting the state at risk for a second spike in coronavirus infections as Louisiana reached a somber milestone Tuesday, with the virus death toll growing to more than 1,000.
In a sign the virus will continue upending lives for months, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said major spring and summer festivals that have been postponed to later this year should not be held in 2020 at all, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Essence Festival.
The state announced it will consider temporary furloughs of up to 1,200 inmates, in a bid to decrease the virus’s potential spread in the close confines of prison facilities. Release of the furlough plan details came as a new lawsuit challenged the corrections department’s handling of inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 and as the agency reported its first COVID-19 death, a worker at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Louisiana has seen encouraging signs in combating the virus, with slowing rates of new hospitalizations and fewer patients on ventilators. Edwards credits people remaining physically distanced from others and limiting trips outside their homes with helping to slow the rate of new infections.
But the Democratic governor said he saw far more traffic on highways than “I expected to see or wanted to see” during his Monday flight to view tornado damage in north Louisiana. He warned the uptick in traffic and reports of public gatherings could send Louisiana on a backslide in its fight against COVID-19.
“The reason we are trending in the right direction, the reason we have a slowing in the growth of cases ... and deaths is because of the social distancing, the hygiene practices, the stay-at-home order,” Edwards said. “And all it takes to have a spike in cases and go back the other direction is for too many people to violate the order, too much social contact.”
More than 21,500 people in Louisiana have confirmed infections of the COVID-19 disease, about 9% of whom are hospitalized, according to health department data. The state’s death toll from the virus reached 1,013 Tuesday, up from 884 a day earlier, the largest single-day increase in deaths. Officials stressed not all of those deaths occurred in the last 24 hours, because there is often a lag time in reporting.
As confirmed infections at Louisiana’s state prisons and local jails continue to rise, Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc announced the creation of a six-person review panel to consider temporary furloughs for inmates convicted of nonviolent, non-sex-offense crimes who are within the last six months of their sentences.
The panel will start reviewing cases Friday, LeBlanc said. Five votes are required for an inmate to be furloughed. Approved inmates will be placed on home incarceration with ankle monitors.
Meanwhile Tuesday, two advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s treatment of inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The Promise of Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center are objecting to the Department of Corrections’ decision to transfer infected inmates — including some who are awaiting trial and haven’t been convicted — to a portion of the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Camp J. The organizations described Camp J as a “notoriously inhumane facility that was closed in 2018 due to its poor conditions.” They said the prison, in rural West Feliciana Parish, isn’t set up to offer adequate medical care.
“Moving sick people from around the state to a facility with no ventilators, no doctors and a long way from adequate hospitals is wrong and will result in a public health disaster,” Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of The Promise of Justice Initiative, said in a statement.
LeBlanc said he couldn’t comment about the pending litigation, but he described the use of Camp J as “the right move on our part.”
For most people, the highly contagious coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough that resolve in several weeks. But some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can suffer severe symptoms that can be fatal.
Edwards on Tuesday again postponed Louisiana’s presidential primary, this time pushing it back to July 11.