BATON ROUGE— Gov. John Bel Edwards worries too many people are newly disobeying his stay-home order and putting the state at risk for a new spike in coronavirus infections as Louisiana reached a somber milestone Tuesday, with the virus death toll growing to more than 1,000.
Louisiana has seen encouraging signs in combating the virus, with slowing rates of new hospitalizations and fewer patients on ventilators. Edwards credits people remaining physically distanced from others and limiting trips outside their homes with helping to slow the rate of new infections.
But the Democratic governor said he's received reports about an uptick in traffic and gatherings over the Easter weekend, and he warned that could send Louisiana on a backslide in its fight against the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.
"I am encouraging everyone to get back to taking this very seriously," Edwards said. "The reason we are trending in the right direction, the reason we have a slowing in the growth of cases ... and deaths is because of the social distancing, the hygiene practices, the stay-at-home order. And all it takes to have a spike in cases and go back the other direction is for too many people to violate the order, too much social contact."
More than 21,500 people in Louisiana have confirmed infections of the COVID-19 disease, about 9% of whom are hospitalized, according to health department data. The state's death toll from the virus reached 1,013 Tuesday, up from 884 a day earlier. Officials stressed not all of those deaths occurred in the last 24 hours, because there is often a lag time in reporting.
As confirmed infections at Louisiana's state prisons and local jails continue to rise, two advocacy groups Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's treatment of inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The Promise of Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center are objecting to the Department of Corrections' decision to transfer infected inmates — including some who are awaiting trial and haven't been convicted — to a portion of the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Camp J. The organizations described Camp J as a "notoriously inhumane facility that was closed in 2018 due to its poor conditions." They said the prison, in rural West Feliciana Parish, isn't set up to offer adequate medical care.
"Moving sick people from around the state to a facility with no ventilators, no doctors and a long way from adequate hospitals is wrong and will result in a public health disaster," Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of The Promise of Justice Initiative, said in a statement.
The Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to questions about the lawsuit Tuesday.
For most people, the highly contagious coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough that resolve in several weeks. But some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can suffer severe symptoms that can be fatal.
Edwards' order limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery and shuttering businesses deemed nonessential, such as gyms, hair salons and bars remains in place through the end of April. The governor has suggested it may be extended.
His closure of K-12 public schools, also set to expire this month, will instead be continued through the remainder of the academic year, which lasts until late May. Edwards was expected to sign that proclamation this week, a decision that will have Louisiana's 700,000 public school students out of their classrooms for two months of the school year.
"Education will continue. The school year continues. But they're not going to be going back onto the campuses," Edwards said Monday. "It's just not going to be feasible to resume the operation of our schools this academic year."
Local school districts have been using distance learning — and at least half are using some form of online teaching — to keep lessons going since schools closed in mid-March, according to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Individual districts have been left to decide how to teach classes.