- Associated Press - Monday, August 2, 2021

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Louisiana on Monday reinstated a mask mandate in all indoor locations, including schools and colleges, as the state struggles with a fast-growing fourth surge of COVID-19 driven by the delta variant and one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said the mandate will go into effect on Wednesday and will apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents. Less than three months ago, Edwards lifted a previous face covering requirement amid hopes that the virus was abating.

“Our latest numbers confirm that we simply have to do more,” the governor said at a news conference surrounded by hospital leaders who supported the decision.

The announcement came as one of Louisiana’s largest hospitals - Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center in Baton Rouge - brought in a disaster medical assistance team of nearly three dozen health care workers Monday to help the facility cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients.

Chief medical officer Dr. Catherine O’Neal said the hospital is currently caring for 155 COVID-19 patients, one-third of them in intensive care. She said COVID patients occupy one-quarter of the facility, while people with chest pains and other medical conditions are forced to sit in the emergency room waiting for an ICU bed. Elective surgeries have been postponed.

“These are the darkest days of this pandemic. We are no longer giving adequate care to patients,” she said.

Edwards warned things would only get worse, at least in the short term.

“Looking ahead to tomorrow, we will report more hospitalizations than at any other point in the pandemic,” Edwards said. “Case growth per capita is the highest in the country, and the second place state is not even close. … There are no signs on the horizon that things are about to flatten.”

Edwards’ order will last until Sept. 1, but could be extended beyond that.

Louisiana reported 11,109 new cases since Friday, with 27 more deaths. The number of hospitalized climbed to 1,984 - seven times the number of COVID-19 patients a month ago. The total number of deaths since the pandemic started in early 2020 surpassed 11,000 in Monday’s newest figures.

The state has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, although the number of people who had received at least one dose rose by more than 46,000 between Thursday and Monday, to nearly 43%. More than 1.72 million, or just under 37%, are fully vaccinated.

“If you’re not going to trust the science and get the vaccine, respect the virus and wear a mask,” said Dr. Phyllis Mason, chief medical officer at Natchitoches Regional Medal Center, who called the face recovering requirement “a game changer.”

The mask mandate will apply to anyone age 5 and older who enters a business, a school, a church or other inside location. It also will cover any kindergartners if they are under the age of 5.

Students start returning to some K-12 schools this week. Louisiana’s education leaders had declined to enact any masking orders across all districts, leaving it to individual school systems to determine their plans. The governor’s executive order will end the district-by-district negotiations.

Stephanie Flood Thomas, a resident of Mississippi and spokesperson for the disaster medical assistance team helping at Our Lady of the Lake, said she recently returned from working at a hospital in Texas, where there was a need for lab techs, nurses, respiratory therapists and a host of other areas of care.

“It’s the entire hospital,” she said. “It’s not just one group of people that are getting sick. It’s the front desk who are getting sick. There are some people who are scared to come to work. Some of the hospitals that we backfilled, they were scared that they were going to get it.”

Also Monday, officials from Edwards’ office said in a written statement that another member of the governor’s staff has tested positive for COVID-19. That staffer and five others who may have been exposed were doing well at home, in isolation, they said. Two other governor’s office staffers tested positive last week.

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