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The State Capitol building sits on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 in Downtown Baton Rouge.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards won’t reinforce the state’s mask mandate, despite Omicron sweeping the state.

On Jan. 6, the state reported over 14,000 new cases, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. In December, the state reported over 11,000 COVID-19 reinfections, up from 565 in November. The latest seven day positivity rate, reported Dec. 29, was 27%, up from 10% the previous seven days.

"We just have not ever, ever had as much COVID circulating the state as there is right now,” Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer said at a press conference on Jan. 6. “I say that in full recognition that we have said that before.”

While Omicron’s transmissibility is much higher than previous variants, current data suggests that the variant isn’t leading to as many hospitalizations and deaths. As of Jan. 6, just 60 of the over 1000 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Louisiana are on mechanical ventilators. 

"We have a variant that's marginally less virulent, meaning an average is making people less sick,” Kanter said. “On the other hand you have many more people getting it. So that's why the hospitals are still very busy."

Edwards last lifted the mask mandate on Oct. 26, as the Delta surge began to die down. At that point, it had been in place since Aug. 22. At various points since Oct. 26, Edwards has told reporters that he is leaving the option on the table.  

Students began returning to school last week and most will not be required to wear a mask indoors. 

“I wish more school districts would take the recommendations of the Office of Public Health around the mask mandate,” Edwards said. “But at this point in time, I'm not going to impose that mandate from my position as governor.”

LSU will reimplement its mask mandate it ended late in fall 2021 in the spring and professors will be able to teach online the first two weeks of the semester.

Edwards said that the state has done its part in educating the districts.

“We have regional medical directors in the office of public health that are advising school districts and superintendents and so forth, and making sure that they have the best information possible,” Edwards said.

Edwards said that the decision of implementing a mask mandate, which both he and Louisiana Department of Health officials have recommended, will be left up to the schools or up to individual parents.

Edwards pointed out that the vaccine is available to everybody 5 and older. Only 18% of Louisiana residents aged 5-17 are fully vaccinated. On Dec. 14, the state’s vaccination rate passed 50%. Experts advise that herd immunity requires at least 75% of a population to be vaccinated. 

However, those who are vaccinated on average get less sick, and the majority of COVID-19 deaths occur in unvaccinated patients. Booster shots also signficiantly increases immunity against the Omicron variant. 

Edwards’ decision not to reimplement the mask mandate also comes amidst a national shortage of rapid antigen tests. The rapid tests, which have previously been available at testing locations or to be purchased in retail stores, have been in high demand due to the Omicron variant.

On Jan. 1, the LDH announced that all testing sites in East Baton Rouge Parish were out of these rapid tests. It’s not clear whether the parish has been restocked. However, Kanter and Edwards said the state is working with both the federal government and the private market to get more of these tests for the state.

Kanter said that the state still has a plentiful stock of PCR tests, which can only be administered at testing sites and require a one to two day waiting period for results.

The LDH has issued guidance for what to do if a test is unavailable. The department recommends that if a person is symptomatic, they should consider themselves COVID positive and isolate at home.

Kanter acknowledged that this guidance is not available to all workers, especially those who make a lower wage.

“We see this a lot with your hourly workers and many workers that unfortunately don't have paid sick leave, that they feel compelled to go to work when symptomatic, because they can’t miss a paycheck and I deeply empathize with that,” Kanter said. “That's a policy failure on all of our shoulders that we can't find a way to better protect workers in that regard.”

Kanter asked that employers be flexible during this time. He pointed out that doing so would be in their best interest, as spreading the virus to other employees and customers is a bad business practice.

The Associated Press reported on Jan. 7 that many governors “are displaying little appetite for widespread public orders or shutdowns.”

Even other Democratic governors, who, like Edwards, passed mandates during earlier phases of the pandemic, are declining to do so again. Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that “I think a lot of people will self-enforce and do the right thing.”

When asked about reimplementing the mandate at a Dec. 30 press conference, Edwards echoed a similar sentiment. “I would ask that people not focus on whether there's a mandate in place,” he said.“The recommendation is the same, we know masks work."

Still, as Edwards has pointed out, the option is on the table. The Governor will hold another press conference next week as Louisiana continues to experience new heights of the Omicron surge.

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