Governor Says He's Washing His Hands of It

Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses coronavirus preparations

Governor John Bel Edwards’ annual pre-legislative session appearance before the Baton Rouge Press Club was – in a manner of speaking – shanghaied by the increasing apprehension over spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19. Having spoken with the Trump administration’s point man, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and held a state Unified Command Group meeting earlier Monday morning, the governor was anxious to try and quell some of the rampant speculation and incipient panic being spread via social media.

“We have no cases in Louisiana,” Edwards said, “Although there now are more than 90 cases nationwide, and two deaths. And while this COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus, other members of the coronavirus family are what cause the common cold.”

Louisiana Unified Command Group meeting on COVID-19, March 2, 2020. Photo courtesy: Office of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Facebook page.

The governor told all in attendance at the weekly press luncheon that while the Unified Command Group had its first meeting on the virus earlier in the day, state agencies had been preparing the response for several weeks. They had all been reviewing, renewing and updating their various “continuity of operations plans.” And, he remarked, “Comprehensive state pandemic planning began 15 years ago.”

In the fall of 2005, the avian flu, H5N1, was found in multiple wild and domesticated bird species around the globe. Flocks of poultry, numbering in the millions, were slaughtered in Southeast Asia, in an effort to halt the spread. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security to initiated pandemic preparedness programs, and worked with each state to develop its own. It was especially imperative for Louisiana, with its commercial poultry farming and butchering industry in north Louisiana, along with south Louisiana serving as a winter habitat for migratory waterfowl. In addition, at that time our residents were facing unknown and unknowable health effects from the weeks of standing floodwaters following Katrina and Rita, along with the respiratory dangers of mold contamination in all the flooded buildings.

Four years later, in the fall of 2009, the massive notebooks detailing Louisiana’s pandemic plans were pulled off the shelves and updated, with the advent of the swine flu/H1N1 outbreak. A variant of the influenza virus that killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide in 1918, limiting the spread and effects of H1N1 was complicated by a flu vaccine shortage. Demand outstripped supply, of course, but overall supply was lower, too, due to the two vaccine manufacturers closing their doors as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.

Gov. John Bel Edwards chats with reporters and others prior to his official statements to the Baton Rouge Press Club, March 2, 2020. Photo by Sue Lincoln.

One of the reporters attending Monday’s meeting asked the governor if any plans had yet been compiled to blunt the potential economic impacts of coronavirus. He replied it was difficult to know what those might be, although some effects were already being felt.

“For example, the Port of New Orleans has ordered two new cranes, but has now been informed that delivery will be delayed,” Edwards said. “The equipment is coming from China, and too many of their workforce are sick.”

He noted there’s a run on surgical masks right now, causing prices to increase, while supplies are on back order.

“People don’t realize nearly all the masks are made in China. And the reality is, wearing a mask doesn’t do much to prevent you catching the virus. The reason to wear a mask is to prevent you from infecting others,” the governor said, reminding folks that operating room personnel wear masks to protect the patient, not themselves.

There were questions about the number and location of Louisiana residents “under quarantine,” and he replied that while state health officials had asked a couple of dozen people to isolate themselves in their homes following recent travel to and from heavily impacted countries, none of them have exhibited symptoms.

Asked about potential curtailment of upcoming events that draw large crowds of tourists, such as Jazzfest, Edwards gave an ironic chuckle, and remarked that coronavirus hadn’t slowed or really affected Louisiana’s biggest annual party, Mardi Gras. Taking a more serious tone, then, he said, “Obviously, certain interventions become wise, depending on what happens. But that’s just looking so far down the road. We’ve been told not to have unnecessary disruption of normal life now.”

Gov. Edwards urged all Louisiana residents who’ve not yet gotten a flu shot to get one – not because it will prevent or minimize contracting coronavirus, but because when and if Loiuisiana’s clinics and hospitals do have to battle COVID-19, they won’t be depleting resources while treating a big bunch of flu patients, too. That led into the his emphasizing the individual’s ability to take precautions, as he ticked off a list of dos and don’ts.

“If you are sick, don’t go to work. Cover your cough: not with your hand, rather, cough into your elbow. And wash your hands – frequently – with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds at a time. And remember, the chances of catching the flu are much higher than the chance of contracting this coronavirus.”

In closing, the governor urged everyone to “avoid gossip and speculation,” asking that they seek out reputable sources of information, like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control.)

“Once someone is presumptively positive on a test, it will be announced by me or the state Department of Health. We will disclose, and will do it very quickly,” Edwards said. “If your don’t hear it from me or the Department of Health, it’s not factual.”