Louisiana reinstates indoor mask mandate amid COVID surge
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana on Monday reinstated a mask mandate in all indoor locations, including schools and colleges, as the state experiences the highest per capita COVID-19 growth in the nation, driven by the delta variant and one of the country’s lowest vaccination rates.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said the mandate will go into effect on Wednesday and will apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents. Less than three months ago, Edwards lifted a previous face covering requirement amid hopes that the virus was abating. But the state’s fourth coronavirus surge since the pandemic began 17 months ago shows no sign of flattening, Edwards said.
“This is bad. And it’s not this bad anywhere else in the country today,” the governor said at a news conference flanked by hospital leaders backing his mandate. “This is having an adverse impact on people’s lives today. And the least we can do is put a mask on. It is not an onerous burden.”
Hospital leaders described grim conditions around Louisiana: facilities filled with COVID-19 patients, including children, and hospital hallways lined with stretchers because there aren’t enough beds.
“We’ve all been dreading the opening of schools because we just feel that that will be a catalyst for more and more cases, more and more suffering and, potentially, more deaths,” said Dr. Mark Kline, physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans.
Louisiana’s education leaders had declined to enact any masking orders across all districts, leaving it to individual school systems to determine their plans. The governor’s executive order will end the district-by-district negotiations.
Kline called the mask mandate “a lifeline” to help children and their parents stay safe as they begin returning to some K-12 schools this week. The requirement will apply to anyone age 5 and older and will cover any kindergartners if they are under the age of 5.
The governor’s announcement came as Louisiana’s largest standalone hospital — Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center in Baton Rouge — brought in a disaster medical assistance team of nearly three dozen health care workers Monday to help the facility cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients.
Chief medical officer Dr. Catherine O’Neal said the hospital is caring for 155 COVID-19 patients, occupying one-quarter of the facility, while people with chest pains and other medical conditions are forced to sit in the emergency room waiting for an ICU bed.
“These are the darkest days of this pandemic. We are no longer giving adequate care to patients,” she said.
Edwards warned things would only get worse, at least in the short term, saying he expects the state on Tuesday to report the largest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations at any point in the pandemic. His mask order will last until Sept. 1, but could be extended beyond that.
Louisiana reported 11,109 new cases since Friday, with 27 more deaths. The number of hospitalized climbed to 1,984 — seven times the number of COVID-19 patients a month ago.
The state has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, although the number of people who had received at least one dose rose by more than 46,000 between Thursday and Monday, to nearly 43%. More than 1.72 million, or just under 37%, are fully vaccinated.
“If you’re not going to trust the science and get the vaccine, respect the virus and wear a mask,” said Dr. Phyllis Mason, chief medical officer at Natchitoches Regional Medal Center.
Business organizations — including the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Louisiana Restaurant Association — urged people to comply with the mask mandate before the state risks further economic damage.
Edwards — whose office announced earlier Monday that a third vaccinated staff member had contracted COVID-19 — expressed frustration with those who have refused to get vaccinated or wear masks.
“Do you give a damn? I hope you do. I do,” he said. “I’ve heard it said often: Louisiana’s the most pro-life state in the nation. I want to believe that. It ought to mean something.”
Associated Press reporters Stacey Plaisance in Baton Rouge and Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this report.