NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana will have 250 workers in place by the end of next week to contact people infected with the new coronavirus and track down people they have been in close contact with, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday.
Such "contact tracing" is a key factor in whether the state will be able to start easing restrictions and closures of businesses, something the Democratic governor is under increasing pressure to do from Republican officials. Increased testing is also a factor, and Edwards said the state, with aid from the federal government, plans to complete a total of 200,000 tests for the month of May.
Edwards said contracts have been signed with two companies that will establish the contact tracing system. That will bolster the 70 contact tracers currently working. The state expects to eventually hire as many as 700 contract tracers if needed.
Edwards' current emergency order, banning gatherings of more than 10 and closing many "nonessential" businesses expires next Friday, May 15. He is to announce Monday whether the restrictions will be extended or if a phased reopening of businesses can begin on May 16.
Factors also include whether, over a 14-day timeline, there is a decline in rate of people showing up at hospitals with symptoms of COVID-19 and in hospitalizations. Statewide, hospitalizations have been trending downward since early April and, as testing increases, the overall number of COVID-19 cases increases daily, but the percentage appears to be down.
One question is whether declines are taking place sufficiently in all nine of the state's public health regions. Edwards steadfastly refused to speculate on whether an easing will be announced Monday.
"We're doing a deep dive into the data as we speak," he said at a news conference live-streamed from the state Capitol in Baton Rouge.
Contact tracing would involve contacting people who test positive for coronavirus, and contacting people with whom they have been in close contact — defined as being within 6 feet of them for more than 15 minutes, according to Dr. Alex Billioux, an assistant health secretary.
Those people would be advised that they have been exposed and that they should self-quarantine for as many as 14 days, possibly longer if they show symptoms.
The five Republican members of Louisiana's U.S. House delegation on Thursday urged Edwards to allow a phased reopening of shuttered state businesses on a regional basis. Meanwhile, Republican state legislators are pushing legislation to block Edwards' enforcement of his stay-at-home order. GOP leaders have said they would shelve the measure if the governor announces plans Monday to start reopening more businesses.
More than 310,000 people qualified for unemployment benefits in Louisiana as of last week, according to figures released Thursday by the state labor department. And a state Legislative Auditor's report said the effects of the coronavirus coupled with low world oil prices could mean parish and municipal governments could lose more than $1 billion in tax and royalty revenue over two fiscal years.
Economists will put a figure Monday on their first estimates of how bad the state's tax collections have been hit, warning the economic damage from the virus and the oil price decline will exceed the financial impact of Hurricane Katrina.
Edwards has resisted calls for a regional or parish-by-parish reopening of the state. And support for such an approach has not been universal. A proposed "framework" for reopening issued last month by nearly 50 local and state business groups also discouraged such an approach citing potential challenges for "multi-jurisdictional employers."
Since then, however, it has become clear that some regions of the state have fared better than others in stemming the spread of COVID-19. Edwards had hoped to announce that reopenings could begin May 1, but he said he declined to do so because of disappointing health data from some regions.
Statewide, although the number of confirmed cases exceeded 30,850 Friday, and 19 new virus-related deaths pushed the toll to 2,154, the hospitalization total dropped to 1,359, the lowest it has been since March. The number has trended downward since early April, when there were more than 2,100.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For others, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.