SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Research experts, medical professionals, and community leaders issued an urgent warning Friday morning as COVID-19 cases continue to surge with the emergence of the new Delta variant, pushing back against misinformation about vaccines and mask-wearing.

“The reason we scheduled this conference today is to impress upon our community that now is the time to take action to avoid our beloved community from being sidelined based on the rise of COVID in the community,” LSU Health Shreveport Vice Chancellor for Research, Dr. Chris Kevil said in a news conference.

“Without a change in course, we could soon be returning to the former restrictions and more importantly, and more sadly, losing more lives,” Kevil warned from a podium featuring a sign reading, “We Are All In This Pandemic Together.”

Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins also announced during the briefing that he is issuing a mask advisory for the City of Shreveport and encouraging citizens to wear masks in indoor settings.

“Since the onset of this public health emergency, we have relied on our medical experts for guidance. They are now warning us of the threat that the highly transmissible Delta variant poses to our unvaccinated residents,” Perkins said.

“I do fear what we’re gonna see if we don’t start paying attention to what we’re seeing right now,” warned Louisiana Department of Health Region 7 Medical Director Dr. Martha Whyte. “We’re in a rapid climb, and we’re going to see more people – next, what comes is more deaths. So we’ve seen more people sick, then we saw more people hospitalized, then we’re gonna see more deaths in young people. So please consider getting vaccinated.”

Dr. Whyte also pushed back against misinformation about the safety of vaccines.

“They’re very safe vaccines. I had someone say, ‘It’s a risk-benefit analysis, Dr. Whyte. That’s why I’m not taking the vaccine.’ Well, no one’s died from this vaccine. Not in this state, no one has died from this vaccine. And we’ve had 610,000 people die in this country from the virus. Analyze that,” Whyte said, prompting applause from some of those attending the briefing. “That is a huge number of people dying versus zero dying from this vaccine.”

The Louisiana Department of Health reported 2,843 new coronavirus cases Thursday, bringing the total number of cases statewide to 506,882. Another 15 deaths were also reported, bringing the toll from the coronavirus in the state to 10,889. There are now 913 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, up nearly 70 patients over the last 24 hours. In Northwest Louisiana, hospitalizations have more than doubled over the past ten days.

The state’s overall vaccination rate remains below 37 percent. Just over 30 percent of the population in Region 7 is vaccinated, according to the latest LDH data. That’s a few percentage points below the statewide average of 33 percent. Caddo has the highest vaccination rate, with 32 percent. Red River has the lowest, at 23.75 percent.

“None of us want to have to go back to lockdowns, but the only way to change and keep this from happening again is to get vaccinated,” said Dr. John Vanchiere, Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the LSUHS COVID-19 Strike Team. “We’re still sitting at 30 percent of our population in North Louisiana has gotten vaccinated. That means two-thirds have not. That means two out of three people you see in the grocery store are not vaccinated. That means we have a lot of risk in our community and that means more people will die in this pandemic. We MAY be finishing the second quarter of a long football game. We MIGHT be halfway through this pandemic. I hope we are past that, but I don’t think we are.”

Vanchiere said they are seeing more people come out to get vaccinated at LSU Health sites and at sites around the Northwest Louisiana area, at a rate of about two and a half times as many as they were seeing a month ago.

The winners of the second drawing in Louisiana’s Shot at a Million vaccine incentive lottery were announced early Friday afternoon. The first winners were announced last Friday, as Gov. John Bel Edwards sounded the alarm about the rising COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations, noting that the state had lost “four months of progress” since the emergence of the Delta variant of the disease.

The state’s COVID-19 infection positivity rate has risen to 8.70 percent, the highest it has been in six months.

Earlier this week, Chicago added Louisiana and two other states to its travel advisory for visitors from states that have once again surpassed the threshold of 15 cases per day, per 100,000 residents.

Arkansas was added to the list last week.

The advisory means unvaccinated people traveling from the states or territories on the Orange list are advised – not required – to obtain a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 72 hours prior to arrival in Chicago or quarantine for 10-days upon arrival.