With new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations growing at an unprecedented rate, Gov. John Bel Edwards will temporarily reimpose the statewide mask mandate for all people — vaccinated and unvaccinated alike — in indoor and public settings.
Louisiana is currently in the worst surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of case growth rate, percent positivity, and hospital admissions.
The renewed mandate applies to everyone 5 years of age and older in Louisiana, though there are some exceptions, and goes into effect Wednesday, Aug. 4. The indoor mask mandate applies to K-12 schools, universities, and other higher education institutions, which return to on-campus learning in August.
The proclamation will remain in place until Sept. 1 but may be extended “if necessary,” Edwards said.
The governor’s announcement came the same day the state reported more than 11,000 total cases and nearly 250 additional hospitalizations. Of the new cases, there were 2,079 reported among children.
“As many of you have seen by now, our latest numbers further confirm that we simply have to do more,” said Edwards, who noted he has already signed the proclamation.
In May, Edwards did away with his initial mask mandate, which was first implemented in July 2020 amid the state’s second surge of COVID-19.
But the possibility of a mask mandate had resurfaced in recent weeks as the state sees a drastic rise in cases, hospitalizations, and percent positivity.
Despite not issuing an official mandate until Monday, Edwards and Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer, have recently pleaded with the public to return to mask wearing when outside their home as the surge continues in Louisiana.
In a sobering press conference on Friday, Edwards told reporters he was “seriously considering” reinstating the statewide mask mandate as new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations — fueled by the more transmissible and dangerous Delta variant — continued to spike.
But first, Edwards said he wanted to review new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on masks amid rapid growth of the Delta variant, which experts say is more transmissible and dangerous than previous COVID-19 strains.
The review of that data was not kind to Louisiana, which currently has the highest per-capita growth of COVID-19 cases in the nation, prompting the mask mandate.
“It has become extremely clear that our current recommendations on their own are not strong enough to deal with Louisiana’s forth surge of COVID,” Edwards said. “And nobody should be laboring under the misapprehension that this is just another surge. This is the worst one we’ve had thus far.”
Currently, all 64 parishes in the state have “high” levels of community spread, meaning there are either 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a test positivity rate of 10 percent or higher. Louisiana is one of only two states in the nation with such a distinction, along with neighboring Arkansas.
Kanter said the state is reporting 88.2 new cases per day per 100,000 residents, the highest point it has been in Louisiana since the start of the pandemic. The most recent positivity rate was 13.2 percent, the worst since the first week of January.
The rapid spread has resulted in the White House designating Louisiana as a “state of concern,” and it has renewed a strain on the state’s hospitals, wiping out months of improvements.
“Louisiana finds itself, yet again, on the leading edge of a very dangerous surge that is going across the country,” Kanter said.
As of Monday, Louisiana was reporting 1,984 COVID-19 hospitalizations, more than the first two surges in 2020. The state set a record for hospitalizations in its winter surge with 2,069. Kanter said the state will exceed that mark Tuesday.
The rapid spread has led to a rising number of deaths, even among younger people. The average age of COVID-19 deaths was 75 at the end of 2020 but has since shrunk to 65 as of this month.
“Over the past month, the number of deaths for people younger than 40 has increased 566 percent,” Kanter said. “That’s 566 percent.”
Along with more vaccinations, Kanter said a masking has been proven “to be an effective strategy in slowing the spread.” He asked the public to take the masking mandate seriously, saying it is not a decision that was “taken lightly.”
“Universal masking right now is what’s needed,” Kanter said.
Edwards said the mask mandate applies to everyone age 5 or older or enrolled in kindergarten, except for the following:
-- Anyone who has a medical condition that prevents the wearing of a face covering
-- Anyone who is consuming a drink or food
-- Anyone who is trying to communicate with a person who is hearing impaired
-- Anyone who is giving a speech for broadcast or to an audience
-- Anyone temporarily removing his or her face covering for identification purposes
Though not required, face coverings “are highly encouraged” for children ages 2 to 4 since they are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Along with Edwards and Kanter, multiple health leaders spoke during the press conference, detailing their hospitals’ current plights and lauding the reinstating of a mask mandate.
Those who spoke included Dr. Mark Kline, physician-in-chief for Children's Hospital New Orleans; Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, medical director of Hospital Quality, Ochsner Health; Dr. Catherine O'Neal, chief medical officer of Our Lady of the Lake; Michele Sutton, president and chief executive officer of North Oaks Health System; and Dr. Phyllis Mason, chief medical officer of Natchitoches Regional Medical Center.
“The governor is right — we certainly need this mask mandate to slow the spread of this rapidly spreading Delta variant,” Kemmerly said. “This variant is different than what we have seen in the other surges, and it is a formidable opponent.”
Said O’Neal: “These are the darkest days of the pandemic.”
Added Sutton: “Our staff is demoralized because they truly believe this surge was preventable if we had all done our part with vaccinations and masking.”
Though vaccinations have picked up in recent weeks, they are still well below the level needed for herd immunity. As of Monday, roughly 43 percent of the state has initiated a vaccine series and 37 percent has completed a series.
Along with wearing a mask, Edwards urged residents to get vaccinated, saying it’s “free, safe, effective, and convenient.”
“It’s not ‘get vaccinated’ or ‘wear a mask’ — it’s both,” Edwards said.