BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's confirmed number of coronavirus cases spiked 42% higher Thursday as a backlog of test results poured in and confirmed Gov. John Bel Edwards' message that the virus's footprint across the state is much wider than limited testing has been able to document so far.
Nearly 9,200 people have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the latest figures released by the Louisiana Department of Health, a jump of more than 2,700 confirmed cases from a day earlier and the largest single-day increase reported so far.
But the governor emphasized that Thursday's large increase reflects the growing level of testing statewide — and a break in the logjam of getting test results from commercial labs, hospitals and small testing sites to Louisiana authorities for confirmation. More than 5,300 new test results were reported to the state overnight, the figures showed.
Edwards said many of the tests were done days ago, and he emphasized that most of those infected are self-isolating at home, not requiring a hospital bed. About 18% of the people confirmed to have the virus are hospitalized, according to state data.
Still, the Democratic governor used the moment to reenforce his message about avoiding group contact.
“We can determine collectively by our individual actions how much worse this virus will impact our families, our communities, our parishes and our state,” he said.
On Thursday, Edwards extended through the end of April his order that closed schools, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery and shuttered businesses deemed nonessential like casinos, gyms, hair salons and bars.
“In those rural areas where you don't have a large case count, don't breathe easy," he cautioned. "The time is now to take action to make sure you don't get the cases. Because you're always further behind this virus than you think you are. If you wait until the numbers grab your attention, guess what? You just let the virus win.”
Although the confirmed infection numbers skyrocketed, deaths attributed to COVID-19 did not show a similar jump. Louisiana's death toll from the coronavirus disease grew to 310 in Thursday's figures, 14% higher than the day before, recording an additional 37 people whose deaths from the virus have been confirmed.
“If there is a place to draw hope here, it is that these new data reveal our COVID-19 related hospitalization and death rates, while still concerningly high, are trending more in line with the national average,” said Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary of the Office of Public Health.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
Hospitals across the state — and particularly in hard-hit New Orleans — have been ramping up their intensive care unit capacity. Ochsner, Louisiana’s largest health system, said it's working daily to draw more health care workers to staff increased ICU beds and protective equipment, such as masks and gowns, to keep those workers safe.
“Today our biggest need is staffing,” Ochsner CEO Warner Thomas said during a conference call Thursday.
Thomas said about 140 nurses will be coming from out of town in the next day or so to help out in the New Orleans area. "That will be a welcome relief,” he said.
Ochsner now is able to test about 1,400 people a day, with results available in about 24 hours — and with a limited number of rapid testing kits that provide results in 15 minutes or less. Those rapid tests most likely will be used in the emergency department, where a quick result can help determine how much protective gear is needed, and for patients needing chemotherapy or other treatments that might compromise their immune systems, chief medical officer Robert Hart said.
As confirmed infections grow daily, Edwards warned Louisiana residents to prepare for their lives to be disrupted for many months: “I think that people should start trying to prepare themselves in their minds that it’s going to be a long time before we’re back to normal.”
Associated Press reporter Kevin McGill contributed to this report from New Orleans.