NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As the number of known coronavirus cases in Louisiana jumped 28% overnight, Gov. John Bel Edwards starkly warned residents Thursday to stay home, saying the state has edged into a tie for the second-highest rate of virus cases per capita. President Donald Trump agreed to set up federal field hospitals in Louisiana and send down public health staff to help with the worsening outbreak.
Louisiana surpassed 2,300 people known to be infected, with 86 residents dead from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus, according to the state health department. A 17-year-old from New Orleans was among the latest deaths, the first in the state of someone under 18, a death that Edwards said shows “everyone is at risk.”
While Louisiana’s virus hot spot remained New Orleans, troubling signs emerged of a spike in cases in northwest Louisiana, prompting Edwards to question whether enough people were following his calls to minimize contact with others.
“You literally have it within the power of yourself to save lives,” the Democratic governor said. “We are not doing as well as we should.”
Amid the outbreak’s climbing trajectory, Louisiana received news that Trump agreed to create two, 250-bed federal field hospitals in Louisiana, providing a 60-person “strike team” of health care workers to staff the sites, Edwards said. The White House also was sending a CDC epidemiology team to help with the state’s response to “clusters” of coronavirus cases identified at six nursing homes.
The higher infection numbers reflect the increase in testing. In Thursday’s figures, the number tested rose nearly 6,600, to 18,000. Coronavirus has now been found in 53 of 64 parishes, although Edwards has said he believes it’s present in every parish, even as statewide mandates banning crowds and closing businesses continue.
“We won’t see the impact of the distancing and the closing of schools and people staying home for a couple of weeks. … We are not near the peak of this yet,” said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease expert and chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge.
New Orleans was gearing up Thursday for a possible overflow at area hospitals, with plans to treat as many as 3,000 patients at the city’s convention center if needed. Edwards said the center’s first 120-bed unit will be ready by the weekend.
The Morial Convention Center will be used for patients who no longer need ventilators to breathe, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said.
With New Orleans becoming one of the nation’s worst outbreaks, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott required anyone arriving to his state by plane from the city to quarantine for 14 days. Edwards replied: “I can’t say that that is inappropriate.”
Business shutdowns because of state and local mandates and “stay at home” orders began showing up economic statistics Thursday. More than 72,600 people in Louisiana filed new unemployment claims last week, compared with nearly 2,300 a week earlier, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Although most people recover and many suffer only mild symptoms, COVID-19 can cause serious illness including respiratory problems for some, including the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.
There is also a growing need for protective masks and clothing to keep health care workers from getting the disease and life-saving ventilators for patients. By Wednesday, 491 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized. Of those, 163 patients — still roughly one-third — required ventilation. On Thursday, the number hospitalized was up to 676. The state said 239 required ventilators.
The state could run out of ventilators for patients in the New Orleans area by April 2, Edwards warned Thursday.
Despite bans on crowds, WAFB TV reported that Life Tabernacle Church in Central, near Baton Rouge, continues to defiantly hold services, sometimes drawing hundreds. The latest was Tuesday night and some neighbors were upset.
“I’m 73 years old. Every time any one of those 1,300 or 300, depending on which day of the week they hold services, leave there and go anywhere else in the city of Central, they’re exposing elderly guys like myself,” Central resident Larry Gregoire told the TV station.
New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees announced on social media that he was committing $5 million to an effort to serve meals statewide to children, the elderly and others in need during the crisis.
Deslatte reported from Baton Rouge. Associated Press reporter Kevin McGill contributed to this story from New Orleans.