Mar 30, 2021
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards COVID-19 Press Conference Transcript March 30
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards held a press conference on March 30, 2021 to provide updates on COVID-19 and vaccine distribution. Read the full transcript here.
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John Bel Edwards: (04:06)
Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for being here again for this edition of the weekly press conference. I’m joined today , as usual by Dr. Jo Kanter from the Department of Health. In just a few minutes, he’ll walk you through some of the latest COVID trends.
John Bel Edwards: (04:28)
In short, many of our numbers continue to improve. At least when you look at it from the statewide level, there are some regions of the state that are more worrisome than others, particularly the Lake Charles region, with respect to cases and hospitalizations and the higher prevalence there than elsewhere, at least as far as we know, of the UK variant. But I am encouraged by sustained decreases in hospitalizations across the state. Also, with the increase in vaccinations. Although, I can tell you, we still have quite a way to go with respect to the vaccinations.
John Bel Edwards: (05:18)
We believe that a majority of our particularly vulnerable residents are now protected through vaccination. As of this week, yesterday, as you know, everyone 16 or older is eligible to receive their shot in order to protect themselves and their families. Again, the 16 and 17 year olds, they’re only authorized Pfizer because it’s emergency use authorizations went down to age 16. The Moderna and the Johnson & Johnson vaccines are for those who are 18 and older.
John Bel Edwards: (05:53)
But everyone who is covered by the [UA 00:05:58] is now eligible in Louisiana. I think I saw a slide out of LDH that said, “If you’re worried about who’s eligible now, it’s all y’all.” Didn’t y’all put that out? So all y’all are eligible and I’m speaking to the people of Louisiana, obviously those 16 and older.
John Bel Edwards: (06:19)
Today, for our COVID numbers, we are adding 499 new cases on 11,866 new tests. Unfortunately, we’re also adding 10 new deaths and the death total since the start of the pandemic is 10,132. 363 people are hospitalized across the state, that’s up one yesterday. We basically have flattened out in that range, and 61 of those individuals are on mechanical ventilators. That’s down one from yesterday. To put the 363 into some more perspective, and that’s the number of people currently in the hospital. On March the 28th of last year, we announced 336. So this is the lowest number since March the 28th of 2020.
John Bel Edwards: (07:21)
In light of these mostly positive trends, today we will be the easing majority of current restrictions relative to occupancy levels and so forth. We’ll do that in the proclamation that we’re going to issue tomorrow. As you know, the current proclamation ends tomorrow.
John Bel Edwards: (07:46)
I will say at the outset that we are going to keep the mask mandate in place for this next proclamation period, which will extend 28 days til April the 28th. When I met with the folks from LDH and when we looked at the CDC guidance, the one thing that they stress the most about where we are in this pandemic is the need to continue to mask as we ramp up these vaccinations.
John Bel Edwards: (08:18)
At this point in the pandemic, the three best tools that we have to win the race, which means slow the spread and speed the vaccinations, are obviously for people to be vaccinated, for people to wear masks and people to distance. So that’s where we’re going and be focused on going forward.
John Bel Edwards: (08:44)
Again, I’ve heard the concerns from the CDC about case counts across the country. We currently have more than 20 States that are heading in the wrong direction in terms of case counts and hospitalizations, and I believe in positivity, and that you’re going to see in a few moments that we have some regions of the state that we’re particularly concerned about too, especially as it relates to variants, which are both more contagious and more virulent.
John Bel Edwards: (09:18)
The mask mandate, again, remains in place. Limitations on when bars and restaurants can serve alcohol will default to local ordinances. So those hours of operation and hours of service restrictions are going to be completely lifted. Specific capacity limitations for certain venues are going to be lifted. But with the requirement that people wear the mask and engage in the six feet of distancing that will continue. But restaurants, bars, gyms, retail settings will no longer have in place a strict occupy limit.
John Bel Edwards: (10:03)
So if you go to a bar, for example, you’ll still be required to sit at a table. That’s one of the ways that we can lift restrictions, but be relatively confident that we’re not going to be unnecessarily and unreasonably contributing to the spread of the virus.
John Bel Edwards: (10:25)
Businesses and venues that host larger gatherings like reception halls will remain capped at 50% of their capacity. But the maximum now will be 500 people. So it’s 50% or 500 people, that per person cap is twice what it is in the current proclamation. Outdoors social distancing will be required, but there is no cap.
John Bel Edwards: (10:53)
I want to just pause here for a moment and remind everyone that any activity outdoors is safer than that same activity indoors, and the weather is improving. It’s nice out and in spring, more often than not, the temperatures are nice. The full humanity of summer hadn’t hit us yet. So I’m going to encourage people to have as many of their activities outside as possible.
John Bel Edwards: (11:21)
Sporting events will be limited to 50% of their capacity, again, with social distancing. If I didn’t say it already, masking will still be required under all circumstances, except when people are actively eating or drinking.
John Bel Edwards: (11:38)
Today marks a big step forward, but we’re all going to have a role to play and do have a role to play in making sure that cases don’t spike again. So three words, mask, distance, vaccinate, and be vaccinated as soon as you can get an appointment, with whichever vaccine is being administered at that location, they’re all safe and they’re all effective.
John Bel Edwards: (12:08)
This is how we’re going to put this pandemic behind us. It’s how we’re going to be able to take off our masks, get back to more normal. But it depends on getting shots in people’s arms. Those that are sitting on the shelf, don’t help us in the pandemic, or in the freezer, they don’t help us end the pandemic. It’s doses in arms.
John Bel Edwards: (12:32)
This morning, I participated in a call with the White House and other governors. The good news is we are anticipating next week, a substantial increase in our weekly allocations of doses. That increase is most … Well, it’s across all of them, the Pfizer, the Moderna and the Johnson & Johnson. We don’t have our specific allocations for next week, at least that’s my understanding, they’ll come out a little later today. Then on Thursday, we’ll start ordering.
John Bel Edwards: (13:11)
But based on the increases that they told us that are going into effect nationwide for next week, we believe that we will have more than 300,000 first doses allocated to Louisiana next week. That does not include the Retail Pharmacy Program. It does not include the federally qualified health centers that are directly participating in a federal program. It doesn’t include the direct federal vaccination efforts that the VA and the Bureau of Prisons and Indian Affairs and so forth.
John Bel Edwards: (13:47)
So what I’m trying to tell the people of Louisiana is, the month of April is going to be critical to our success. We are going to have more doses than we’ve had at any point up to now and it’s within our collective ability to make tremendous progress against this pandemic.
John Bel Edwards: (14:15)
In order to further this effort, I’m excited to announce that as part of our Bring Back Louisiana campaign, we’re also standing up a vaccine hotline, existing contact tracing workforce members will be cross trained to respond to this new stage of our COVID response. It’s a smart solution. It is timely, and it comes at no additional cost.
John Bel Edwards: (14:39)
The hotline will be able to schedule residents for vaccine appointments tied to our pilots and all LDH vaccine events. It will help navigate the larger system of vaccine providers and locations and connect residents to a medical professional for any questions that they might want to ask about the vaccines.
John Bel Edwards: (14:59)
This is a big deal. Our campaign is all about meeting people where they are, breaking barriers so that everyone has the opportunity to get the vaccines. This hotline addresses at least two specific barriers. One, the lack of access to internet, tech savviness or the time, and the ability to navigate our network of providers and events to schedule a vaccine, and, two lack of access to a medical professional to answer specific medical questions.
John Bel Edwards: (15:32)
LDH will train 60 call agents, 10 specifically for clinical support and that’ll happen this week. We know that many eligible Louisianans have jobs that make it tough to schedule appointments, get their questions answered and get the vaccine during the day. So this hotline will also help address that barrier with these hours of operation. The hotline will be up and running next week, and we’re going to share more information later, including the phone number and hours of operation.
John Bel Edwards: (16:04)
In the meantime, if you’re looking to schedule an appointment, please don’t double book. We know that that’s happening across the state. I’ve spoke with medical officers from hospitals all across the state of Louisiana last week and they said, they’ve seen a number of people who are making multiple appointments and then they’re going to the one that works best for them. They either then canceled the other ones or they just don’t show up.
John Bel Edwards: (16:32)
But what those cancellations and no-shows do is it prevents other Louisianans from being able to access that appointment and get that dose of vaccine as soon as they should be able to do so. So it’s really causing some problems for the entire vaccine program. So we’re asking people to just make one appointment for vaccination. Otherwise, it’s extremely difficult for providers to know how …
John Bel Edwards: (17:03)
Otherwise, it’s extremely difficult for providers to know how many vaccines to prepare, how many to take out of the freezer and so forth. Then again it makes it more difficult for fellow Louisianans to schedule their appointments and it delays their vaccinations unnecessarily. Nobody should delay their vaccinations. I happen to know of people who contracted COVID just a few days before they were scheduled to be vaccinated, or maybe they put off being vaccinated and they contracted COVID.
John Bel Edwards: (17:35)
So this is a race against time, and we’re asking everyone to be good neighbors. If you have an appointment scheduled, you’ve got a shot, keep that appointment, but don’t hog multiple appointment times.
John Bel Edwards: (17:50)
In addition to getting the vaccine, wearing a mask, and proper handwashing, I also want to take this opportunity to remind everyone you should still do what you need to do to be your healthiest. So please take care of your wellness checkups, including important health screenings. I recently did this myself.
John Bel Edwards: (18:08)
It was reported this week that now more than 100,000 women have received breast cancer screening because of Medicaid expansion alone. These are women who may not have had health coverage, but for the expansion in our state, nearly 60,000 adults have received colon cancer screening and about 18,400 of them averted cancer. Over 466,000 Louisianan adults have received preventative healthcare or new patient service since July 1st of 2016. It’s something we all need to do so that we’re at our healthiest, which is important all the time, but it’s especially important during a pandemic.
John Bel Edwards: (18:55)
Also, if you’re going to get a checkup, you have an opportunity to interact with a medical provider and ask questions, if you have questions about the vaccines. So please take advantage of that opportunity.
John Bel Edwards: (19:10)
With that, I’m going to ask Dr. Kanter to come up. He’s going to go through some information with you and then I’ll return. As usual, please ask questions of Dr. Kanter while he’s here. Then I’ll come wrap up and take questions of my own. Thank you all.
Dr. Kanter: (19:38)
Good afternoon. Thank you, Governor. Thank you for your leadership. I’d like to just begin by emphasizing what the governor said a few minutes ago, which is as of yesterday, everyone 16 years and older in Louisiana is eligible to get vaccinated. So all you all are eligible. We’ve got to avail ourselves of that opportunity without question.
Dr. Kanter: (20:02)
I’m going to run over quickly the epidemiologic trends that we’ve been looking at. We look at these numbers routinely, and then we do a hard stop every time one of the governor’s proclamations is set to expire to review where we’re at and see what would be prudent going forward.
Dr. Kanter: (20:23)
So what you see on the slide there is the typical gating criteria numbers that we look at. I’m going to walk people through really quickly what we’re looking at. So on the top left, you see COVID-like illness. COVID-like illness is a measure of the percent of people presenting to emergency departments with COVID-like symptoms.
Dr. Kanter: (20:43)
So just a snapshot of what we’re seeing in the emergency departments as a measure. It’s analogous to how we measure flu every year. As you can see, really since the turn of the new year, since January 1st, COVID-like illness in emergency departments has been downtrending rather steadily, and that is encouraging.
Dr. Kanter: (21:04)
On the top right, you’ll see new case incidents. So this is the number of positive new cases of COVID. So that means a positive test and de-duplicated, so no one had it before. We run it through a de-duplication process. Average over the population and smooth on a seven-day rolling average. You can see that for the past … We had 77 days. The state has been declining, the number of new cases of COVID diagnosed day in and day out.
Dr. Kanter: (21:38)
On the bottom left, you’ll see a combination graph. The line on the top of that, the purple line, is testing volumes, so the number of tests that are being conducted per capita in the state. The orange bars in the bottom are percent positivity, the percent of all those tests being conducted that are positive.
Dr. Kanter: (21:56)
We are at 2.8% right now, which is a number we’ve held flat for about a couple of weeks right now. That’s significantly down, as you can see, from where we were about a month or two prior. Possibly the most important measure here, the one that is the most closely related to mortality or people dying is on the bottom right, which is hospitalizations. We have made tremendous improvements in the state in the number of hospitalized COVID patients throughout the state.
Dr. Kanter: (22:28)
I’ll remind people that during the surge, the most recent surge, the Christmas and New Year surge, we surpassed 2000. We are now down to 363, which is tremendous progress. I think if you talk to people that work in hospitals, they will tell you that it feels much different, a lot less COVID in there, and that’s a very thankful thing. If we can go to the next slide, please.
Dr. Kanter: (22:57)
This is when we scale out the state as a whole on the top line and then each of our nine public health regions. We rank it across our three categories: COVID-like illness, cases, and hospitalizations.
Dr. Kanter: (23:10)
This is how the graph looked a month ago, the last time we took a hard look at this data. I’m going to flip forward to how it looks right now and walk folks through here.
Dr. Kanter: (23:20)
So you’ll see that as the state, we are downtrending or decreasing in COVID-like illness, we’re decreasing in new cases and we’re decreasing in hospitalizations. Now as the governor mentioned, when you look beyond that, more granular, into some of the regions, it’s not universal downtrending, and we’re keeping a very close eye on this. Some of the regions, particularly region five, are giving us concern.
Dr. Kanter: (23:45)
So when you dig in a little bit closer, you can see that regions four, five, seven, eight, and nine are all plateauing in COVID-like illness. Regions two, four, and five are plateauing in cases and region six is increasing in cases. Regions four, five, and six are increasing in hospitalizations. By and large, for most of these, not large increases, but little variations that we’re very attentive to keeping a close watch on.
Dr. Kanter: (24:17)
Again, on the whole, I think the state has made tremendous progress. No question, I think. We’ve come down from the surge. The increasing rate of vaccinations has certainly helped in that. I’ve been encouraged, as a lot of us have, with how far we have come since we began this year. It’s been encouraging.
Dr. Kanter: (24:37)
One thing I want to show … And go to the next slide, please … is what’s happening in nursing homes. This is one of the most encouraging pieces of data that we have seen in the state. The blue line there on the top is the number of new cases diagnosed amongst nursing home residents in the state of Louisiana week on week. What you’ll see on that now is that we are at a new historic low since we began counting this closely over a year ago. This past week, we identified or diagnosed 14 new cases of COVID amongst nursing home residents, and that is the lowest number to date since we started following this closely in the pandemic.
Dr. Kanter: (25:25)
The reason for that is very simple. It’s because we now have 80%, 80, 8-0 percent, vaccination coverage amongst nursing home residents.
Dr. Kanter: (25:37)
If anyone had questions about the power of these vaccines, what they can do both to an individual to prevent them from getting sick, but in a population to prevent COVID from spreading, that’s the graph right there to look at. Look at that blue line and how it’s gone down in the setting of 80% coverage amongst nursing home residents. And this is in a difficult to control setting.
Dr. Kanter: (26:02)
Remember, COVID can spread very quickly in nursing homes. It’s a congregate setting and it’s filled with very vulnerable individuals. With that 80% coverage, we have made just tremendous progress. We can do that for the rest of the state. That can easily be a model of what we can do for the rest of the state. Over the next weeks to months, we will have the doses available to us to do that. That is not a question.
Dr. Kanter: (26:29)
That slide gives me a lot of encouragement. It tells me not only that what we’re doing is right, that we’re protecting the very most vulnerable people in the state, but what is possible for the rest of us in the weeks ahead.
Dr. Kanter: (26:41)
I do want to give an update on the variance. This does give me a lot of concern and we’re paying very close attention to it. So of the B117 or the UK variant, we now have 183 confirmed or presumptive cases in Louisiana. As we’ve said the past few weeks, this is very much a tip of the iceberg scenario because we don’t do a whole lot of genomic sequencing in the US. So when you have 183 known, you have many, many more that you just haven’t been able to sequence and identify. The lion’s share of those, 103 of those 183 cases, have been diagnosed in the Greater Lake Charles area. We do believe that is why the Lake Charles area is experiencing some increases in cases right now. The CDC will say that as a whole, on average, the percent of all COVID circulating in Louisiana of that 3.5% is this variant. That is lower than some of our neighbors. Florida’s at 13.2%, Texas is at 7.1%. And Dr. Fauci estimates that across the country, the number could be as high as 20%. So we’re a little bit better off than that, but these things can change very quickly.
Dr. Kanter: (27:58)
Just as last week, we’re thankful we do not have any identified cases of the B1351 variant. That’s the South African variant. It has been identified in 30 states this week with the addition of Alabama, which is a new addition. Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee have that veteran as well.
Dr. Kanter: (28:19)
Likewise, we have not identified any cases of the P1 or Brazilian variant. It has been identified in 22 states closest to us, continue to be Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, and now Tennessee.
Dr. Kanter: (28:35)
One of the things that concerns me and the reason why I’m so attentive to getting vaccine out there quickly and continuing to reduce transmission is that the more transmission you have, the more opportunity for mutations the virus has, and the potential for new variants to emerge increases.
Dr. Kanter: (28:51)
Right now this B117 variant is a good match for the vaccine. It’s a good match for the vaccine, and that’s an opportunity for us. We’ve got to continue to capitalize on that opportunity.
Dr. Kanter: (29:02)
I’ll tell you the vaccine rollout continues to go very well. I got really assuring reports just last night [inaudible 00:29:10] reassuring. I think there’s going to be more of those throughout the state.
Dr. Kanter: (29:23)
At this point in time, 25.7% of the state’s population has at least initiated the vaccine series, 15. 9% have completed the vaccine series, and 69% of Louisianans 65 years of age and older have initiated the vaccine series. Those are encouraging numbers for us. Nationwide, there’s been 147 million doses of vaccine administered.
Dr. Kanter: (29:51)
So for folks that want to see what the experience is like in other people, for folks that are trying to collect all the information out there and see what it looks like to them, taking a step back and looking at that 147 million doses administered across the country is a real strong marker. There have not been any concerning safety trends or adverse events pop out, and that’s a very, very large number, 147 million people.
Dr. Kanter: (30:22)
There are two studies that came out in the past week that I wanted to mention because they’re pretty important studies. The first, this past week, the CDC reported one of the first real-world studies on vaccine efficacy in the US population. They looked at 4,000 first responders, healthcare workers, and other individuals. They followed them through and after vaccination. Then they tested them weekly after they finished vaccination. Remember, we consider being fully vaccinated 14 days after you get your last dose.
Dr. Kanter: (30:54)
Now the trials, as we know for the vaccines, were great, 95%, 94%, those type of numbers. You always wonder what does it look like in the real world when you’re not doing a trial, when life happens, when you might not get the second dose exactly on time, all of these things, complicated. That’s what this recent CDC study looked like.
Dr. Kanter: (31:14)
Under the real-world conditions, 90% reduction in both symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID in people who completed their vaccine series. This followed people for four months total. The study began four months ago. This is the most reassuring data to date that these vaccines can, are, and will be effective in the real-world conditions here in the US and Louisiana.
Dr. Kanter: (31:44)
The other study that I found important this past week was a study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology that looked specifically at women who were pregnant and women who were breastfeeding infants who received the vaccine. Again, this is a body that a lot of work is being [inaudible 00:32:02] into and there’s a number of studies ongoing, and every day more and more data accumulates to show that the vaccine is not only safe in pregnant women and breastfeeding women, that it actually has significant benefit beyond that. This study is the biggest one to date.
Dr. Kanter: (32:16)
So what it showed, number one, is that the vaccine is just as safe in pregnant and breastfeeding women as it was in women who are not pregnant or not breastfeeding. Number two, it showed the vaccine was just as effective in those women for their own protection, just as likely to induce the creation of protective antibodies in those women as it is for women who were not pregnant and not breastfeeding.
Dr. Kanter: (32:43)
Number three, it showed that those protective antibodies were transmitted through the placenta to the unborn child in pregnant women, meaning that when pregnant women get vaccinated, they pass protection on to the unborn child. Number four, it also showed that those protective antibodies were transmitted through breast milk to breastfeeding infants. So when pregnant women or newly delivered women get vaccinated, they also confer that protection to the infant if they’re breastfeeding. Those are very encouraging measures, and there’s going to be more data about pregnant and breastfeeding women to come.
Dr. Kanter: (33:24)
Looking ahead to next week, as the governor mentioned, we do not yet have the precise number of doses that the Feds are going to allocate to us. We typically find that out Tuesday evenings, and then it gets confirmed sometime on Thursday. But after being briefed out by the White House a couple of hours ago, we expect a dramatic increase of doses, somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 first doses coming to Louisiana in the next week. That’s going to be a significant increase from what we’ve been receiving.
Dr. Kanter: (33:56)
I’ll remind people, this past week, we had another significant increase, 148,000 new first doses, plus the federal pharmacy …
Dr. Kanter: (34:03)
… [Race 00:34:00] 148,000 new first doses. Plus the federal pharmacy allocation, which is what enabled us to open it up to everyone 16 years of age and older. The federal retail pharmacy program continues to be a high volume vaccination avenue. The feds, so far for Louisiana, have allocated a total of 358,110 doses to that program. And the Brookshires pharmacy chain will not be out of that as well, in addition to a couple of small independent pharmacies. So this program is going to continue to grow and the feds are looking at this program everyday to move more and more volume. And it’s worked well for Louisiana. In taking a step back, we certainly have some things that we need to keep our eye on ahead, particularly the variants and what’s happening in the Lake Charles area.
Dr. Kanter: (34:55)
And then the Easter holiday coming ahead as well. We have the tools to keep COVID at bay and the governor mentioned them. It’s masking, it’s distancing, it’s preferentially spending time outdoors, and it’s getting vaccinated. We have the tools at our disposal. With Easter coming, I’d like to remind folks, number one, get vaccinated and get your families vaccinated too. The governor had mentioned this. Folks will know that I work as an ER doc, I had the opportunity to practice clinically this past weekend and we saw less COVID then we had in weeks past. No question about that. But still saw a little COVID. And I treated a very sick individual with COVID who got admitted to the ICU, who she had the opportunity to get vaccinated few weeks prior and decided to wait. How terrible would it be if one of your loved ones got sick with COVID and had the opportunity to get vaccinated ahead of that? How terrible would that be?
Dr. Kanter: (36:05)
Remember to keep Easter celebrations safe. Remember that if everyone in the private gathering is fully vaccinated, you can take off the masks and you can not distance. And if you’re gathering with one other household who is un-vaccinated and no one in there is high risk for complications, you can also take the masks off and not distance. And it’s much safer to do those gatherings outdoors. And I took a look at the weather and most part of the state on Easter Sunday is going to be 73 degrees, partly sunny. So Why not do it outdoors? And just remember, I’ll say it one more time, everyone now is 16 years of age in Louisiana is eligible for the vaccine. If you’ve already gotten it, I thank you. If you have already gotten it, I’m going to ask you, become an ambassador, talk to your friends and family, talk to them and what your experience was, and try and get your friends and family vaccinated it too. It’s going to make a difference. I’d be happy to answer any questions if there are any. yes, sir.
Speaker 2: (37:15)
How confident are you that we’re getting an accurate picture of what’s happening in the state? I ask that because we’ve seen testing decrease, looking at the numbers, seemingly a significant drop from January to where our numbers are right now. Are you confident that we’re getting a pretty accurate picture of what COVID looks like in this state and that that positivity rate is actually what it is?
Dr. Kanter: (37:44)
Yeah, it’s a very good and very fair question. And you’re right, the testing volume is decreased in took a hit. Testing volume late February during the winter storms, that recovered, but then it’s, it’s been trending down a little bit, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. Number one, testing volume tends to go down as cases go down because more cases, we get more testing, more contacts, the more reason to be tested. And a lot of institutions are understandably putting their attention towards vaccination. The things that give me assurance that we’re getting an accurate picture is the percent positivity has stayed relatively flat. When your testing volume goes down and your percent positivity shoots up that tells you that you’re not testing enough, that tells you that there are cases out there that you’re not catching. When you keep your percent positivity relatively flat, or even decrease it, as we did a couple of weeks ago, it’s a pretty good bar that you’re still doing enough testing to get a representative sample. The other thing that gives me reassurance more than that is the hospitalizations. There is no way to mask or fake or, or obscure the number of people that get sick. It’s a representation of how many people are getting COVID. When more people get COVID, there’s more people in the hospitals. When less people get COVID, but there are less people in the hospitals and that number that 363 today, gives me a lot of reassurance on that.
Speaker 2: (39:04)
I have one more.
Dr. Kanter: (39:05)
Speaker 2: (39:06)
As far as contact tracing goes, these were big keys that we’ve talked about at the beginning of the pandemic. Are we still seeing active participation in contact tracing? And are we able to still measure how widespread someone’s contact is if they do test positive?
Dr. Kanter: (39:27)
Yeah, we are. The system is going pretty well. And one of the things I like the most about it is it’s not just about contact tracing, it’s an opportunity for information dissemination. It’s an opportunity to talk to someone about… It’s really an opportunity for counseling and that’s what we call them, contact tracers, but they’re really more like counselors. They talk to individual about what it means to be positive, what you should do, what you shouldn’t do, what you just say to your friends and family. And they actually connect people with resources if they need it. So that program is going well. As you would imagine as that incidents, as the number of cases go down, the number of contact tracing encounters goes down as well. And that’s one of the things we’re actually able to use, some of that apparatus that we’ve stood up to gear up for the COVID vaccine hotline that the governor promoed because we have a little bit more of room on those teams. Yes, sir.
Speaker 3: (40:20)
[Doctor Kaner 00:40:20], when you see sort of some trends nationally and stuff like that, and some people nationally and sort of saying a little doom and gloom, like kind of the CDC director last night, I know she said that. How does Louisiana fare compared to the rest of the country and how do we keep going and doing so good that we’re doing right now?
Dr. Kanter: (40:39)
Again, a very good and fair question. And on the White House call today, Dr. Walensky the CDC director noted that of the past week, cases nationally have gone up 13% and that’s really focused in the Northeast, some parts of the Midwest as well. The Southern States somewhat remarkably have done pretty well. I wonder if some of that is weather related and we’ve been able to be outdoors much more of this past month than our neighbors up North have been able to. It does give me pause because COVID has a way of not respecting boundaries and not respecting state boundaries. As we’ve done it every step of the way we have to let the data drive these decisions and when numbers are going in the right direction and things are going well, it’s an opportunity to relax regulations. But if numbers were to go in the other direction, as we’ve done every step of the way, the state has to respond appropriately.
Dr. Kanter: (41:35)
I don’t think that that dynamic changes. The larger question of at what point you get enough vaccine coverage to prevent against a spike, that really is an unanswered question. I mean, it’s almost, it’s being determined in real time. I’m not inclined to wait and see what that answer might be. I mean, we have an opportunity to really protect now and regardless of what that number might be, I’m not inclined to leave that to chance, which is why I feel so urgent and push to get vaccines out there. Because if there’s one major tool, we have to safeguard against the chance for a spike. And again, states in the Northeast are maybe beginning a spike right now, it’s tough to say. If there’s one major, major chance that we have to prevent against that, it’s getting vaccinated. Yep. Last question.
Speaker 4: (42:34)
Dr. Kaner, a clarification then a question with this new order, does anything change as it relates to live music from the previous order, is that all stayed the same.
Dr. Kanter: (42:44)
As I understand it, live music will be allowed under guidelines from the open safely document, the state fire marshals document. Those are going to be tweaked a little bit to make it a little easier for some venues, but the general framework that live music will be allowed with participants seated and with some mitigated measures to prevent the spread of aerosols is going to stay.
Speaker 4: (43:07)
And then my actual question is, they announced earlier this week and it’s coming later this week, but New York is going to be the first state with a vaccine passport app. That’s tied with venues, entertainment venues, sporting venues. We’ll have data about vaccinations, testing wise. Is the state, Louisiana, considering that have there been discussions on a vaccine passport. And regardless of what that answer is, why?
Dr. Kanter: (43:27)
It’s certainly been discussed. I know it’s been discussed nationally. I think it’s too soon to really say definitively one way or the other. The federal government has kind of said that they are going to support these type of apps almost on the back end with some tech, but they’re going to leave a lot of it to states and really to the private industry. I think it’s very likely that some businesses might find it a useful tool to assure the safety. And you can imagine at some point in the future that you might be able to do larger occupancy if that was in place. But I think it’s going to be driven by businesses and entities.
Speaker 4: (44:03)
John Bel Edwards: (44:16)
Thank you, Dr. Kaner. And just to follow up on a couple of things, there is no doubt that testing volume has decreased. I think we reached an all time high in January, but we’re over 500,000 tests in the month of March. To put that in perspective, we were at the end of June last year getting to 500,000. And when the White House coronavirus task force set a goal for us, it is admittedly a minimum goal in order to see what’s really happening in our state. They said, “You need to be at least 200,000.” So we’re still testing robustly enough to have a really good indication of what’s happening out there. But I think Dr. Kaner’s other points really important. You also look at the percent positivity, because sick people are going to get tested.
John Bel Edwards: (45:05)
And so the fewer you test, that symptomatic groups already built into that. And so if you’re testing enough and the, I’m sorry, if the testing goes down, but percent positivity doesn’t go up, you can feel good about that. And then the hospitalizations. That’s ground truth. Hospitalizations and deaths are ground truth as to where you are. With respect to live music. I do want to refer people to the Open Safely Guidance, but it will be a little easier for these venues to satisfy that guidance going forward, because we found that the limiting factor before were the HVAC systems.
John Bel Edwards: (45:46)
And so now with the distance and other mitigation measures between the performers and the crowd, the spectators, the HVAC won’t be a necessary component of that. But look at the open safely guidance, but it’s going to be easier for venues to satisfy that guidance, and actually have a live entertainment before I take questions, want to transition away from COVID for a moment and talk about DSNAP. This is related to the winter storm, which has been a long time, but it was actually just last month. And it has been approved for 23 parishes. So get ready. We’re going to go through those parishes in just a moment. The storms occurred again, last month. The application process will run in two phases between Monday, April the 5th and Saturday, April the 17th. And we’ll follow an alphabet schedule according to applicant’s last name. And the approved parishes are as follows. Avoyelles, Bienville, Bossier, Caddo, Calcasieu, Catahoula, Claiborne, Concordia, DeSoto, East Baton Rouge, Franklin, Grant, LaSalle, Madison, Natchitoches, Ouachita, Rapides, Red River, Richland, Sabine, Webster, West Carroll, and Winn.
John Bel Edwards: (47:34)
Residents who received the DSNAP benefits in February of 2021 are not eligible for DSNAP. Residents who began to receive SNAP benefits after 2021 may be, I’m sorry, after February, 2021, may be eligible. Finally, this is the last press conference before, that we had planned at least, before the Easter weekend. And for many of us, this will be the first Easter, perhaps the first holiday when, because we have taken the opportunity to be vaccinated, and so have our family members that we may be able to spend that time with family indoors in a safe environment. Dr. Kaner went over that again. And obviously last winter, it was a different situation with respect to our churches. So I want to encourage everyone, as you prepare for Easter, please continue to be mindful that while we’re doing much better, there is still reason for concern. We are not out of the woods yet, and everyone should take the proper precautions in order to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. And as difficult as the past year has been, we all have a lot to be thankful for. And so we have a big reason to want to get together and celebrate and share with one another. We just don’t want to share COVID. It’s still out there. There’s still people getting the disease every day and they’re going into the hospital every day. And unfortunately, as you know too well, people are still dying every day. Outside gatherings and small groups are always be always best. And if members of your family are not fully vaccinated, clearly precautions need to be taken. And I’m taking some time to go through this, because I just want to remind people what it was like when we went through Easter and New Years.
John Bel Edwards: (49:46)
Those holidays, because of the related travel, the gatherings, the activities cause the largest spike to date. And we don’t want a repeat of that. Not when we’re so close to having the opportunity for everyone who is 16 and older to be vaccinated and to protect themselves from this disease. So I’m praying that this season of new birth would be one of blessings and happiness to everyone. And I am confident that 2021 will certainly be better than 2020, but how much better and how soon, depends upon each and every one of us. So have a wonderful, safe and happy Easter. And I will take your questions. Yes, sir.
Speaker 5: (50:37)
Thank you. Governor Dr. Walensky yesterday said that she felt impending doom of a fourth surge. And following that, President Biden urged governors, not to ease restrictions. Do you see the actions today as bucking that federal advice? And what did you make of those comments yesterday?
John Bel Edwards: (50:58)
Well, I mean, clearly we eased restrictions.
John Bel Edwards: (51:01)
… when we eased restrictions. And we did it because we’ve had a framework for making these decisions since the very beginning. And it’s on the gating criteria in combination with the baseline numbers and the gating criteria and the baseline numbers are consistent with reducing the restrictions.
John Bel Edwards: (51:25)
I know what Dr. Walensky was talking about. There’s a seven day running average of cases, it’s up 13% in the last week. There’s, I think, 62,000 in the country. There is also a similar average for deaths. It’s up 6% over the last week. And I think that that number is right at 1000. They’ve seen about 21 states move in the wrong direction. And clearly, as I mentioned before, we have some parts of our state that are not doing as well as others, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to be consistent to do what we can that always seeks to strike the right balance between lives on the one hand livelihoods on the other.
John Bel Edwards: (52:18)
I think we’ve done that in this case. And I will point out that much like my own experts like Dr. Kanner and others at LDH, Dr. Walensky’s most fervent plea is to keep masks on over the next several weeks. It is critically important, because we’re finally going to have the opportunity to get an awful lot of people vaccinated very quickly, if only they will choose to take advantage of that opportunity.
John Bel Edwards: (52:47)
We’re still very much in that race against the virus against the variants. And the mask is a way to slow the spread. Even as you bring more people in close contact, closer contact I should say, with one another while those vaccinations ramp up.
John Bel Edwards: (53:04)
So what we did, I believe, is a prudent. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. But I am mindful that some of the guidance that was put out by the White House and by the CDC would suggest that you don’t loosen any restrictions at this point. I obviously wasn’t comfortable with that approach. Yes, sir?
Speaker 6: (53:29)
Governor, on a different note, I understand that Congressman Graves has asked your administration to consider taking a billion dollars from the ARP and dedicating it to Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge and a new Calcasieu Bridge. I wonder if you’re considering that, and if you have anything else to share in terms of how y’all are thinking about using the ARP funds, given that the rules change according to the [crosstalk 00:53:52]
John Bel Edwards: (53:51)
Yeah. First of all, I did get a letter and Congressman Graves’ preference would be for us to go big on infrastructure. I will tell you my first priority is to replenish the unemployment insurance trust fund, because without that we’re going to cause, automatically by operation of law, a tax increase on every employer in the state that pays into that fund. Come September when the REC recognizes the fund balance of our UI trust fund that is below a certain amount. And the severity of the tax increase and surcharge depends on how low that amount is. Well that amount is exactly zero today. It was $1.1 billion a year ago.
John Bel Edwards: (54:37)
So I believe that, that’s the first order of priority. And by the way, that’s going to be a considerable amount of money to get to the point where those tax increases are not necessary. On top of that, we don’t have the rules issued yet by the treasury. So we don’t know how much of that funding we get in the first year as opposed to year two or year three. So making those allocations just isn’t possible yet. But I can tell you, I’ve already started the conversations with legislative leadership, including the Speaker and the President, but also other members, about that funding and what it is that we should be doing with it.
John Bel Edwards: (55:18)
I will point out that to the extent, at least I believe… And we have to wait and see exactly how the treasurer interprets the legislation. To the degree that the funding replaces lost revenue compared to the 2019 base year, I think you can use it for infrastructure of the type that Congressman Graves is interested in doing. But we don’t know exactly how that’s to be computed yet. On the other hand, the money has to be used for COVID related expenditures, again, replacing the lost revenue or it can be spent on water projects, sewer projects or broadband. And so that would potentially be a limiting factor on how much funding is available for infrastructure that is not water, sewer or broadband. Yes, sir?
Speaker 3: (56:10)
Some of the latest surveys on vaccine hesitancy show a lack of trust or hesitancy among conservatives or Republicans and even some State Republican lawmakers have said they don’t trust the vaccine. What do you say to them and what’s your message to folks who may be watching who fit that category?
John Bel Edwards: (56:30)
Yeah. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. First of all, I believe that the clinical trials were robust. And I think all the efforts that were made to ensure the safety and efficacy of the three vaccines that have been approved thus far were considerable. And I remember going through this day by day, working within the Trump White House and most especially Vice-President Pence who chaired the coronavirus task force. And the effort there by that entire team was to make sure that there was confidence in those vaccines, if and when the FDA issued the Emergency Use authorization.
John Bel Edwards: (57:16)
And I said, even before that happened, that I was fully satisfied. I don’t know what role one’s political ideology plays in this? It doesn’t seem to me to make sense on any level, but particularly for Republicans when this was the number one thing that the Trump administration used to measure its efforts with respect to fighting this pandemic were the very quick way that safe and effective vaccines were produced and tested and granted authorization. And then the administration of the vaccine that came less than a year after the pandemic started. I will note that the President himself, the Former President has been vaccinated as has the Vice President. So I just don’t get it.
John Bel Edwards: (58:20)
But even if they had some issues with the way that it was produced, at this point, we’ve been administering vaccine in this state since I think December the 12th? Dr. Kanner gave you the numbers of the people who have initiated their vaccine series, how many people have completed, and so forth. And what we’re seeing are vaccines that are incredibly safe. I don’t know of a more compelling visual demonstration of how efficacious these vaccines are then looking at that nursing home chart. If you could put that back up? Where you see that where the third vaccine clinic happened, as a matter of the timeline, and then the very quick and precipitous drop in cases.
John Bel Edwards: (59:18)
Where 80% of residents in nursing homes have been fully vaccinated you get down to 14 cases statewide. And these are people who by their age are vulnerable to disease, they typically all have at least one comorbid health condition that makes them additionally vulnerable, and they live in a congregate setting. This is why so many deaths happened in nursing homes to begin with, right? Because this is the most vulnerable population that exists. And yet with an 80% vaccination rate, you see what happens to the cases. I don’t know what more anybody would ever need to know that this is a safe and effective vaccine. And we have the opportunity to do that for the entire state if just enough people will avail themselves of the opportunity to be vaccinated. And I, quite frankly, don’t know what folks are waiting for. It just doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m going to continue to appeal to them to reach out and have a conversation with a trusted source, a physician, somebody so that if they can articulate a question or some basis for hesitancy or whatever that that can be addressed. So that that person can protect themselves and others, because this pandemic only stops when enough people get vaccinated. It doesn’t stop before that.
John Bel Edwards: (01:00:59)
And when the pandemic is over, the coronavirus is still going to be with us. COVID-19 is still going to be with us. But those people who are vaccinated are not going to be feeling its effects. So, it’s just important to do. But I cannot begin to understand how one’s political philosophy interferes with the process of deciding to avail oneself of this particular vaccine or any of the vaccines. Yes, sir?
Speaker 3: (01:01:37)
One more. Now with the capacity limit easing up a lot of course, who is going to enforce the social distancing and stuff that… Like places like this and bars and stuff like that?
John Bel Edwards: (01:01:49)
The enforcement would be the same way that it has been. It’s pretty easy to go in a place and see whether the patrons are seated at the table, for example. And if they’re all seated at the table and wearing their masks when they’re not, then they’re going to be in compliance. We’re not going to be looking for hours. We’re not going to be that they’re in operation and serving and that sort of thing.
John Bel Edwards: (01:02:11)
But I will tell you what I said going back to the very first proclamation that I issued, we’re not going to enforce our way out of this pandemic. We have 4.6 million people, tens of thousands of businesses, thousands of churches, and so forth. And so we’re calling on the people of Louisiana to do what works, what we know works. And one of the ways we know these measure works is because, if y’all will remember back at the outset of the pandemic, Louisiana was number one in the nation per capita cases for weeks and weeks.
John Bel Edwards: (01:02:46)
The last number I saw, we were 25. So what that means is after that initial surge, we’ve done collectively in Louisiana a better job than most states at managing our response to the pandemic and to reducing spread and so forth. And that’s happened because of the people of Louisiana. And it’s one of the reasons why I’m confident that we’re going to continue to collectively do what is necessary.
John Bel Edwards: (01:03:16)
Now, do I wish that we had more compliance? Absolutely. I know that there are a number of people out there who are not doing what, what they should in order to keep themselves and their families safe and so forth. But, at the end of the day we have an awful lot of people who do take this seriously and more often than not, they are engaging in the right behaviors. And that makes a tremendous difference. We will enforce what we need to, but we continue to call upon the people of Louisiana to be responsible and to be good neighbors.
Speaker 7: (01:03:53)
John Bel Edwards: (01:03:56)
Or maybe that was it? Look, I really believe that this is our moment. This next 30 days is going to be critically important for us. It’s going to be critical to our success in terms of putting this pandemic behind us and getting the state to a place where it is extremely unlikely that we will see another surge. I am also convinced that we are not there today, but we have plenty of promise and potential over the next 30 days.
John Bel Edwards: (01:04:34)
There are three safe and effective vaccines. Consider that nursing home information that we just went over. More than 25% of our state has at least started their vaccination series. We believe that there will be well over 300,000 first doses allocated to Louisiana next week. And if you extrapolate that going forward, there will be well over a million doses, first doses, made available to us in the month of April.
John Bel Edwards: (01:05:11)
Every single person 16 and older is eligible. That’s everyone contemplated by the Emergency Use Authorizations that have been granted by the FDA to date. There will be ample opportunity for people to be vaccinated in every nook and cranny of the state. And you’re going to have an opportunity to do that during the day, on weekends, at nights.
John Bel Edwards: (01:05:43)
This is a critical month, as we try to make sure that we win this race against time and against virus and the variance. And there are two overarching priorities, they are masking and they were vaccinating. Let’s collectively put forth a tremendous effort in the month of April. And if we do that, I am convinced that we’re going to position ourselves, just 13 months after the start of the pandemic, in a way that will really make a meaningful and lasting difference.
John Bel Edwards: (01:06:28)
Everyone have a blessed and holy Easter, and please continue to lift up our state in prayer and all those people who are struggling with COVID, the family members of those who’ve died over the past year, and there’ve been well over 10,000 of those now. And let’s be resolved that that number will be as low as we can possibly make it going forward. Thank you all and God bless.