BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a public health emergency in Louisiana on Wednesday as the number of new coronavirus cases in the state continued to grow.
The state's first positive test for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was announced Monday. Twelve more people had since tested positive, Edwards said. Louisiana, like other states, is sending test results to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for final confirmation.
New Orleans universities have started shifting to online classes, and the number of parades and other events that are being canceled has begun to increase.
Residents in six parishes had tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday, broadening the cases beyond the New Orleans area into northwest Louisiana and other southern parishes, Edwards said at an evening news conference. Three people in a New Orleans nursing home tested positive, the governor said.
Edwards said health officials expected the number of cases to continue to rise but he urged people not to panic.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Most people recover within weeks, as has happened with three-quarters of those infected in mainland China.
With no vaccine or cure for COVID-19, Louisiana's governor said people should follow the same precautions they'd take for the flu: washing hands frequently, staying home if sick and keeping more distance from people, rather than giving hugs.
He said the state is working to determine everyone who came into contact with the 13 people who tested positive. Edwards warned that public health officials believe the cases in the New Orleans area weren't travel-related, meaning the virus had spread through community interaction.
Louisiana State University on Wednesday discouraged students and staff from traveling for the upcoming spring break. The Baton Rouge campus also said it's considering moving classes to an online format for the remainder of the spring semester, depending on the virus' spread.
At least four universities in New Orleans announced plans to transition to online classes only, in the coming days: Loyola University, the University of New Orleans, Tulane University and Dillard University, according to the state Board of Regents.
Meanwhile, state House and Senate committees held hearings to get a crash course in the new coronavirus, asking about symptoms, precautionary measures and testing.
They asked whether Louisiana's prominent festivals, such as Jazz Fest in New Orleans, would be canceled — after New Orleans officials canceled the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade and other related weekend events as a precaution. Public health officials said no major festivals had been canceled. They said they were trying to balance the events' risk to people with the impact on the local economy.
However, the NCAA announced Wednesday that Division I basketball tournament games, including next month's Women's Final Four in New Orleans, will not be open to the general public because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
Rep. Robby Carter, a Democrat from St. Helena Parish, had a personal question, referencing his own medical condition: “If somebody had kidney problems and he's on anti-immunity drugs, should he be in a room like this?”
“That's a risk," replied Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer.
Carter said his doctor told him not to attend work at the Louisiana Capitol if people test positive for the virus in Baton Rouge, which hadn't happened so far.