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Teche Action Clinic's Dr. Gary Wiltz

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Louisiana Department of Health Region 3 Medical Director Dr. Chip Riggins

Governor's press conference has a St. Mary focus

Gov. John Bel Edwards' regular Thursday COVID press conference focused for a time on St. Mary Parish and the Department of Health region of which it is a part.

Dr. Gary Wiltz of Franklin, CEO of Teche Action Clinic, spoke Thursday along with Dr. Chip Riggins, the Region 3 medical director.

They talked about inequities in health care, especially as it relates to COVID-19.

Edwards said Louisiana was the first state to discover the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on African Americans. Blacks account for only about a third of Louisiana's population but as much as 70% of the early COVID-19 deaths.

The latest figures say whites (49.3%) and blacks (48.7%) are more nearly equal among COVID deaths, but African Americans are still over-represented among fatalities.

Rural areas present their own brand of challenges in the public health arena, Wiltz said.

"A lot of our folks don't have transportation ...," Wiltz said. "You won't find a of people homeless on the streets but we do have housing over-crowding, which makes it very difficult to socially distance."

Teche Action Clinic is beginning an effort to make sure kids have their updated vaccinations and to urge adults to get shots for pneumonia.

Edwards said it's important for people to get flu shots because that virus is spread in the same way the coronavirus moves from person to person. St. Mary's flu shot participation rate is "historically underwhelming," Wiltz said. It was 46% last year.

Riggins, whose Region 3 includes St. Mary and parishes to the east, said Teche Action Clinic stepped up in St. John the Baptist Parish in the first COVID wave, when that parish was the hottest COVID hot spot among all U.S. counties. The clinic opened its doors to people outside its normal patient base and facilitated testing.

"Their help made a big difference in turning the tide during that first peak," Riggins said.

St. Mary was partially spared from the worst of the first spike in cases in March and April, but African Americans still were infected in numbers disproportionate to the 38% of the population they represent. The racial disparity was even larger in the number of fatalities.

Public health specialists have been reaching out to schools, faith communities and elsewhere to get a handle on how to provide preventive care and chronic disease management, Riggins said.

Wiltz praised Edwards for pushing to make Louisiana part of the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Although the act took full effect in 2014, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal declined to make the state part of the expansion. Edwards reversed that decision, making 400,000 people, including working low-income people, eligible for coverage of the state-federal program.

"Even though we're in a pandemic, it could have been a lot, lot worse," Wiltz said.

Some opponents of Louisiana's participation in the expansion called President Barack Obama's ACA a federal takeover of the health care system. Others said that while the federal government pays most of the expansion's cost, it could add to the chronic problems Louisiana has in providing its share of overall Medicaid spending.

Thursday's Office of Public Health daily report said St. Mary now has recorded 1,658 COVID cases, quadruple the number of St. Mary cases as of mid-June. Fifty-nine St. Mary people have died.

In St. Martin, three new cases were reported for a total of 1,760, and Assumption has six new cases for a total of 600.

The death toll remained at 46 in St. Martin and 20 in Assumption.

Statewide:

--1,135 new cases make the pandemic total 135,439.

--41 new deaths raised the toll to 4,279.

The OPH reported a delay in reporting of hospital data. As of Wednesday, 1,320 COVID-positive people were in hospitals, including 211 on ventilators

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