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Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks Tuesday at a press conference about the spread of COVID-19.

Screen Capture from Louisiana Public Broadcasting

COVID-19 spread in Louisiana: It's complicated

Disparity between deaths and hospitalizations, and African American fatality numbers, are mysteries

Louisiana is unlikely to run out of ventilator capacity for COVID-19 patients within the next two weeks based on statistical modeling, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday.

But the governor said some of the information, including key data points on which the modeling is based, remains unclear or even contradictory.

One thing is certain, he said Maintaining mitigation measures such as social distancing, staying home and practicing good hygiene are vital if Louisiana is to avoid overwhelming the state's hospitals.

Edwards said again Tuesday that the two most important numbers for COVID-19 modeling are hospitalizations and deaths.

The statistics announced by the Louisiana Office of Public Health at noon Tuesday say 1,996 people are in Louisiana hospitals, an increase of only 15 over noon Monday's corrected total of 1,981.

The number of patients on ventilators actually fell by 44 to 519.

But the number of Louisiana COVID-19-related deaths rose by 70 between noon Monday and noon Tuesday, the biggest one-day increase yet. The total is now 582.

Another mystery is why 70% of the Louisiana people who have died from COVID-19-related illness are African Americans.

Black people in Louisiana are known to be disproportionately affected by underlying conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease, that make people especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

But Edwards said that after he announced the 70% statistic Monday, he learned that African Americans in MIlwaukee, Chicago and Detroit also make up a larger than expected share of COVID-19 deaths.

"There may be something larger than just health disparities in Louisiana," Edwards said. 'We don't know."

He was more sure about the reason for the decline in ventilator use.

'What that reflects, we believe, is improvements in the way we are dispensing medical care in Louisiana," Edwards said.

Dr. Alex Biyeaux, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, gave one example. Patients with some illnesses improve when they are placed on ventilators early in their treatment.. But Louisiana doctors are learning that early ventilator use doesn't work well for COVID-19 patients.

More effective protocols mean Louisiana probably won't run out of ventilators to use with the next 10 days to two weeks, the governor said. Earlier predictions indicated the state might reach full capacity this week.

Edwards said he continues to see signs in the numbers that Louisiana is "flattening the curve," or slowing the disease's spread enough to avoid a sudden surge in illness that could exceed hospital and ventilator capacity.

"We still cannot say with confidence that the curve is flattening," Edwards said. "But we are seeing more movement in that direction."

And, he said, "all the modeling is premised on the assumption that we will continue the mitigation."

The governor said he's concerned that people who hear that anti-COVID-19 measures might be working will stop obeying control measures.

'In fact, this is the time to double down," he said. "This is still going to be a very difficult week. And next week will be difficult. ...

"These are our fellow Louisianians. These are human beings. These are our brothers and sisters."

Also Tuesday:

--Edwards urged business owners affected by COVID-19 to apply quickly for the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Programs and other benefits. Of about $349 billion in such aid approved by Congress, $60 billion is already allocated, the governor said.

The state and private partners have a program called the Loan Portfolio Protection Guarantee Program for businesses with fewer than 100 employees. The program offers no- or low-interest loans to businesses affected by the pandemic. More information is available at http://opportunitylouisiana.com/covid19.

--Edwards said insight into the way ventilators are being used helped the state decide to scale back its orders for the devices. At one point the orders totaled 14,000.

Edwards said the state has received 753 ventilators so far, including 200 from the national strategic stockpile this week.

Louisiana has received 400,000 medical masks promised by Apple CEO Tim Cook.

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