Louisiana lawmakers hold contentious hearing on COVID-19

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards doesn’t currently have plans to enact broad coronavirus vaccine mandates across Louisiana despite low immunization rates and a surge in COVID-19 cases overwhelming hospitals, the Democratic governor’s chief attorney told lawmakers Monday.

The comments from Edwards executive counsel Matthew Block came as New Orleans started requiring the vaccine or a recent negative test for the coronavirus to enter restaurants, bars, gyms, the Superdome and other indoor locations.

Block spoke at a House health committee hearing where he and Louisiana’s chief public health officer Dr. Joe Kanter were heckled and criticized by an unruly crowd objecting to masks and vaccines. Security removed several people from the room for refusing to wear a mask or for shouting objections to health information.

As Kanter advocated for wearing masks to prevent the illness’ spread, one person in the committee room shouted: “They don’t work!” Another said: “More lies!” Edwards has enacted a statewide mask mandate for indoor locations, whether people are vaccinated or not. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also urges indoor masking in public places.

As the hearing stretched over hours, Louisiana’s health department announced another hospitalization record, with 2,956 people with the coronavirus illness filling up hospital beds and placing strain on the state’s health care system.

Hospital leaders and other public health officials have warned repeatedly the facilities are at a breaking point.

“I pray we’re close to the peak, I really do. I haven’t seen any evidence in our data that suggests we’re close,” Kanter told the House Health and Welfare Committee.

Ninety percent of the COVID-19 patients in hospitals are not fully vaccinated, according to state health department data.

Louisiana continues to have the nation’s highest per capita number of new COVID-19 cases over the last week, according to the CDC. Dozens of people are dying from the disease each day, with 188 COVID-19 deaths confirmed in Louisiana over the last week.

While New Orleans on Monday began its vaccine or testing requirement to enter businesses, the Louisiana State University, University of Louisiana and Southern University systems intend to require students to be vaccinated — with a state-approved list of exemptions — after one of the inoculations receives full FDA approval, expected within weeks.

Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baton Rouge Republican, questioned whether Edwards wants to enact more widespread vaccination requirements.

“I think we’re all more than antsy about where we’re going,” Edmonds said.

Block replied: “Is this something the governor is considering at this point in time? The answer is no.” He cautioned, however, that Edwards won’t eliminate the possibility in the future, depending on where the pandemic is headed.

Louisiana’s Republican Party voted Saturday to condemn New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell for requiring proof of vaccination or recent negative coronavirus test to enter businesses and called on the Legislature to reverse the action. Republican Rep. Chuck Owen, of Rosepine, proposed the resolution adopted by the GOP, calling the vaccine mandate “a threat to our liberty.”

At Monday’s hearing, Carencro Republican Rep. Julie Emerson asked the higher education system presidents to describe how students can claim exemptions from the college vaccine mandates that are expected to take effect later this year.

Bossier City Republican Rep. Raymond Crews said the Edwards administration should be doing more to promote taking vitamins and combating underlying health conditions like obesity and diabetes that make someone more at risk for severe symptoms when they contract COVID-19.

“Why are we pushing masks when a large swath of Louisiana doesn’t consent to it?” Crews asked. “When we force things on people that don’t want to do it, it just erodes the power of government.”

People testifying at the hearing were split on masks and vaccines. Several parents objected to the mask requirement applying to children attending K-12 schools. One woman described a mask as an “experimental” medical device and called the face covering requirement “child abuse.”

Democrats on the committee highlighted the extensive spread of COVID-19 around the state and raised worries about the grim situation in Louisiana’s hospitals.

“By not wearing our masks, could that cause harm to other people?” asked Rep. Travis Johnson, a Vidalia Democrat.

Kanter replied: “Without question.”

Also Monday, the New Orleans Public Schools system said it’s tracking the COVID-19 cases of 246 students and 53 staffers. the system stressed that 102 of the cases involve people who had not yet set foot in school this year.

More than 3,000 other students and staffers who had close contact with those individuals have been told to stay home under the system’s quarantine guidelines. The system has about 45,000 students in more than 70 schools.

“As a result of these mitigation efforts, COVID-19 transmission in our schools remains very uncommon,” said Dr. Benjamin Springgate, the school system’s medical adviser.


Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.