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New Orleans eases restrictions; Brazil-linked variant found

April 29, 2021 GMT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A coronavirus variant first detected in Brazil has been found in Louisiana, state health officials said Thursday, warning that there are concerns the variant may be associated with a higher risk of severe COVID-19 cases.

Thursday’s state health department announcement said officials have identified two cases of the variant, one in the New Orleans region and one in southwest Louisiana. And they say there are likely more cases in the state.

Vaccines are effective against the variant, the department said. But there are concerns that the variant may be more easily transmitted, is less easily treated and may be linked to more severe cases of COVID-19.

Thursday’s announcement came shortly after New Orleans officials announced plans for looser virus-related restrictions. Starting Friday, restaurants, bars and other businesses in the hospitality-driven city can operate at 100% capacity, up from 75%.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and city health director Dr. Jennifer Avegno discussed the changes at a news conference.

“With these changes, New Orleans will be the most open it has been since the pandemic began,” Avegno said.

And there are still some important restrictions. While the statewide mask mandate in Louisiana is being dropped, New Orleans is maintaining mask requirements.

“There is no national public health organization or leading experts that recommend the full removal of masks right now,” Avegno said.

Also, businesses will have to maintain social distancing.

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Varying limits remain at stadiums and indoor arenas. But other indoor gathering limits are increasing from 150 people to 250. And outdoor gatherings of 500 people will be allowed, up from 250.

The easing of rules comes as the city -- which was an early hot spot for COVID-19 -- continues to see vaccination rates increase.

Nearly 43% of the city’s residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine and nearly 36% have completed their dosages, officials said. When children who are not yet eligible for vaccines are removed from the numbers, the figures go to nearly 54% and 45%, respectively.

The seven-day average of new cases per day is 19 and positive test rates are below 1% — both falling below thresholds that would require more stringent measures in the city.

But Cantrell and Avegno stressed the need for continued caution.

“As a state, Louisiana continues to rank among the highest in percentage of variants and lowest vaccinations,” Avegno said. “Those are two opposite directions from what we would like to see.”

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