BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Gov. John Bel Edwards says the state is considering reinstating a statewide mask mandate, citing the ongoing surge of COVID-19 in Louisiana that is showing no signs of slowing.

“In light of the trends and developments, I can tell you that I have received calls over the last 24 hours or so from numerous hospitals and other health leaders to reinstate a statewide mask mandate,” Edwards said in a briefing Friday afternoon. “This is something that I am seriously considering.”

“We are very unfortunately in a position we had hoped and prayed very hard to avoid, but the delta variant is an absolute game-changer in a state that is not sufficiently vaccinated.”

Edwards said public health and hospital officials will be poring over the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control this weekend to determine whether a statewide mask mandate is warranted, but also noted that 45 hospitals across the state have asked for help with staffing as resources are growing more and more strained.

A decision could come as early as Monday, Edwards said, “because quite frankly if this is something we are going to have to do, time is of the essence.”

“Just to show how quickly the COVID situation has mushroomed, in Baton Rouge right now there are more people in the hospital with COVID than there were in the entire state just a month ago. That’s why it’s so important that people do what’s been asked of them.”

While the Louisiana Department of Health is working on a contract to create another 171 hospital beds’ worth of staffing, “that will certainly help but in all likelihood will not be nearly enough,” Edwards said, calling the trajectory of most recent surge “sobering.”

The briefing comes as the state reports another 5,313 new cases and 31 new deaths, bringing the total number of cases to 541,679 and the total number of deaths to 10,999.

With 349 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days, Louisiana continues to lead the country in the number of new cases per capita. State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter says data show one person infected with delta will infect an average of six to ten other people, and more than 13% of all COVID tests are coming back positive.

“We’ve not been that high since January sixth of this year.”

Between the virulence of the delta variant and persistent vaccine hesitancy, hospitals are filling up and deaths are on the rise once again. According to data highlighted in Friday’s briefing:

  • 90.4% of all new COVID-19 cases reported last week were among not fully vaccinated people
  • 85% of the COVID-19 deaths reported last week were not fully vaccinated
  • 89.3% of people currently hospitalized in Louisiana are not fully vaccinated

“It is unbelievable to be back where we are right now,” Kanter said. “Literally shock, and some disbelief, too. It is not an exaggeration to say it is as bad now as it has been at any point in pandemic and it is not yet showing any signs of slowing.”

Kanter says the rate of incidence is up 182% over last week and up 923% over the last month. But it is the grim upward trend in hospitalizations that Kanter says is most concerning, with the number of patients hospitalized across the state rising seven-fold over last month with no indication that it is slowing.

“Delta is clearly more transmissible, it’s more virulent, it’s more aggressive than anything we’ve seen yet.”

The 1,740 patients currently in the hospital have already surpassed the number of hospitalizations seen last summer when they peaked at 1,600. If these trends continue, Kanter says the state is likely to see them surge beyond the highest peak of 2,069 reached on January 7, 2021.

Kanter said nearly 12 percent of all emergency room visits in the state right now are people coming in with COVID-like symptoms.

“That is the highest point we have ever been in this pandemic. We have never had more people coming in as we do right now.”

That is why Kanter is urging people who think they might have COVID-19 but are not having any serious symptoms to avoid going to the emergency room and instead test outside of a hospital and stay home unless symptoms get worse.

“The symptoms of COVID can be very vague, ” Kanter said, but the classic symptoms of COVID are cough, fever, shortness of breath. But he also noted that there are a lot of minor symptoms that can easily be COVID that you might not realize, such as sinus infection, runny nose, feeling tired, stomach aches, and sore throat.

He is urging anyone who has these symptoms to contact their doctor, and he is urging doctors to be broad in their testing so that a more accurate picture of the spread of the virus can be tracked.

Citizens can call 211 for information on testing availability, and Kanter notes most large pharmacy chains in the state offer COVID testing.

Also worrisome is the shift in affected age groups, The number one age group in new cases is 18 to 29, followed by those under the age of 18, Kanter said. The average age of those becoming infected with COVID-19 currently is 54. A month ago, it was 64.

And only 12% percent of those eligible aged 12 to 17 are currently vaccinated.

“Delta is different. The delta variant is different in a number of ways. It’s more transmissible, it’s more powerful. It infects people in a way that makes them have a thousand times more virus in their body than the prior variants did and unfortunately, it seems to be more apt to make kids sick. We are seeing more children sick with COVID now with delta than we have at any other point in this pandemic.”

Kanter says seven cases of new cases of multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) have been reported to the Louisiana Department of Health within the last two days, the largest number in the shortest period of time of any point during the pandemic.

“None of them were fully vaccinated. Four of those seven individuals remain in the pediatric ICU and these cases can get very, very severe and I fear that we’re going to see more of these in the coming weeks. This delta variant is attacking children in a way we have not seen at any point in the pandemic.”

About 41% of the state’s population has received at least one vaccine dose, based on figures the health department posted Thursday. Vaccinations have been increasing but the rate remains low.

Last week, Edwards urged Louisianans to wear masks in public indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination. The CDC updated their guidelines to recommend the same this week.

The briefing also comes shortly after the governor’s office announced that two members of his team have tested positive for COVID-19. According to a statement released early Friday afternoon, both are at home in isolation, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Louisiana Department of Health. 

“The Governor’s office has a high rate of fully vaccinated staff, including these staffers who were vaccinated against COVID earlier this year,” the statement said. “While breakthrough cases such as these do happen, they typically do not result in serious illness. The Governor’s Office practices all CDC and LDH-recommended COVID mitigation measures, including indoor masking, quarantine and isolation, and COVID testing after exposure.”

Edwards confirmed during Friday’s briefing that he was not in close contact with the staffers, but that he did get tested anyway. He said the rapid test taken earlier in the day came back negative, and the PCR test is expected to come back later Friday afternoon.

Edwards’ administration released orders late Thursday requiring Louisiana’s executive branch employees and visitors to state office buildings to wear masks, regardless of whether they are vaccinated against COVID-19.

The new order was released from Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne’s office.

Employees at state offices are to maintain physical distancing. Masking is required in all common areas of state buildings, including halls, stairways, elevators and restrooms. Employees can work without masks in their regular private workspace if physical distancing is possible.

Among other aspects of the order are requirements that teleconferencing and “virtual meetings” be held, when possible, instead of in-person meetings.