Department of Health updates lawmakers on COVID-19 response

Updated: Mar. 11, 2020 at 4:55 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) updated lawmakers on its COVID-19 preparedness and response efforts at the capitol Wednesday, March 11.

The department confirmed that the state’s first patient, a Jefferson Parish resident hospitalized in New Orleans, did not catch the virus during travel. He or she did not have a clear history of contact with another infected patient either, meaning he or she likely contracted COVID-19 from an undiagnosed person in the New Orleans area, officials said.

"We believe that, almost to a certainty, we are now faced with community spread,” interim LDH Secretary Stephen Russo said.

The state Office of Public Health (OPH) has tested 43 samples for the new coronavirus since it got testing kits from the Centers for Disease Control on Feb. 26. As of Wednesday afternoon, 13 tests are presumed positive.

“Similar to flu, for every one person who’s actively infected with the COVID-19, they can infect about two to three other people,” OPH Assistant Secretary Alex Billioux said. "But the early efforts we’ve taken in containment does mean that the risk for most Americans is, at this point, still low.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards and LDH officials have participated in at least three calls with Vice President Mike Pence and his task force charged with containing the virus’s spread.

Sometime in April, the federal government will send Louisiana at least $7 million of the $8 billion aid package President Donald Trump signed last week. More money is expected to come later, but the state will use its first share to hire more health investigators who can identify people who might have come into contact with infected patients.

There’s currently no medical treatment for the virus, which looks and feels like a bad cold for 80 to 90% of patients. LDH officials said preliminary testing on a potential vaccine could begin within two months, though it would not be available to the public for at least another 12 to 18 months.

Officials raised a new concern before lawmakers that the healthcare system may be “overwhelmed” because some nurses and doctors who treat COVID-19 patients may also have to stay home from work as a precaution.

“You could very quickly decimate a hospital or a clinic where a case comes in there, people have to go home, and then you don’t have enough folks to care for folks,” state health officer, Dr. Jimmy Guidry, said. "That means they can’t care for more patients.”

Guidry says the best way to prevent this worst case scenario is by practicing good hygiene and taking the virus seriously.

LDH has opened a coronavirus hotline, accessible Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for anyone with questions at 1-855-523-2652.

Though some cities have chosen to do so on their own, the state does not yet have plans to cancel festivals or events attended by large numbers of people. The virus is being monitored and cancellations are possible, however.

“Will we stop it? Probably not. Will we slow it down? Probably,” Guidry said. "What we can’t afford is people getting emotional, making emotional decisions and overreacting. That creates all kinds of problems with the economy and with businesses.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards will meet with cabinet secretaries and the Unified Command Group at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness before he holds a press conference at 5:30.

Presumptive cases remain classified as such until confirmed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. The CDC can take several days to return test results to the state.

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