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Edwards keeps virus rules as COVID-19 hospitalizations surge

December 22, 2020 GMT
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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, with a sign language interpreter to his left, speaks at his latest briefing on COVID-19, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, with a sign language interpreter to his left, speaks at his latest briefing on COVID-19, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Warning the holidays threaten to exacerbate Louisiana’s latest coronavirus surge, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he’s keeping the current COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and activities across a Christmas season he’s cautioning shouldn’t look like previous ones.

The Democratic governor’s rules, which he toughened in late November, were set to expire Wednesday. Edwards said he renewed them through Jan. 13, announcing the decision as Louisiana reached its highest number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients since April.

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“It remains a very perilous situation for the state with respect to COVID,” Edwards said.

He added: “If we insist on traveling and having those holiday-related activities and gatherings like we normally would, then we’re obviously going to be in even more trouble.”

The decision to maintain restrictions wasn’t a surprise. Edwards already had said he wouldn’t loosen the limits, which include a statewide mask mandate. The only question going into Tuesday’s announcement had been whether he would tighten them further, which he decided against.

While the start of vaccinations has offered hope of an end to the pandemic, it remains months before widespread immunizations will be available. At least 22,000 people in Louisiana — hospital workers and EMS employees — have received their first of two vaccinations so far, according to new tracking information released on the state health department’s website Tuesday.

Vaccinations for people who live and work at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are set to begin in Louisiana next week.

Edwards said he hasn’t decided who will be next in line for shots after those groups.

He’s sifting through the latest recommendations from a panel of scientific experts that advises the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those suggestions called for states to next prioritize people 75 and older and essential workers such as firefighters, teachers and grocery workers.

The governor said he expects Louisiana to largely follow that proposal. If the state makes adjustments, Edwards said, “they’re going to be on the margins. So, our priorities will not look markedly different.”

Under Edwards’ continuing Phase 2 rules, restaurants, gyms, salons, casinos, malls and other nonessential businesses will have to continue limiting customer numbers to 50% of their occupancy rate. Crowds at churches will stay restricted to 75% of occupancy including for Christmas services.

Most bars likely will remain limited to takeout, delivery and outside seating, because their parishes don’t meet the low percentages of coronavirus tests returning positive required to allow indoor drinking at bars. Indoor gatherings for weddings and events will continue to be limited to 75 people or a maximum of 25% occupancy, whichever is less. Outdoor gatherings have looser limits.

Louisiana is in its third spike of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths since the state’s outbreak began in mid-March.

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The health department said Tuesday that 1,647 people are hospitalized with the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, higher than the hospitalization numbers of Louisiana’s summer surge. Public health leaders are concerned the facilities could soon be overwhelmed if the virus’ spread worsens because of holiday gatherings.

“There is more COVID circulating now in the state than there ever has been before,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the governor’s chief public health adviser.

The state is averaging more than 2,000 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus daily over the last week. At least 6,813 people are confirmed to have died from COVID-19 in the state, according to health department data.

The governor’s restrictions are being challenged in court by House Republicans, who sought to nullify a previous version of the rules. A district judge had ruled the process used by the GOP lawmakers unconstitutional, but the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned that decision on a procedural issue and sent the case back to the lower court judge for a new hearing.

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