Trump approves federal disaster declaration for Louisiana


March 25, 2020

By MELINDA DESLATTE (AP) — President Donald Trump Tuesday evening granted a federal disaster declaration exists in Louisiana and ordered assistance to supplement recovery efforts in the areas affected by COVID-19.

Louisiana’s governor on Tuesday asked the White House to declare a major disaster in his state to free up more direct federal aid to cope with the surging coronavirus outbreak, warning that the New Orleans area could run out of hospital beds by early April. The declaration dates back to Jan. 20.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ request to President Donald Trump comes as the number of people in Louisiana confirmed to have COVID-19 surged to nearly 1,400, only two weeks after the state’s first positive test. Forty-six Louisiana residents have died from the disease, according to the state health department.

A dead rodent lies on the sidewalk of a deserted Bourbon Street, normally bustling with tourists and revelers, in New Orleans, Monday, March 23, 2020. Complicating New Orleans' fight against the new coronavirus spread, rats and mice are abandoning their hiding places in walls and rafters of shuttered businesses and venturing outside. On Bourbon Street, workers in protective clothing placed poisonous bait in storm drains and set out traps. "Unfortunately, what's happening is, many of these rodents are looking for an alternative food source," Claudia Riegel, the city's pest control director, said Monday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

“The response to the spread of COVID-19 has overwhelmed the capabilities of state and local resources,” the Democratic governor said in his letter to the Trump administration, released Tuesday. “I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of state and local governments.”

Trump has granted federal disaster declarations for California, Washington and New York, according to the Louisiana governor’s office. Edwards said Louisiana has the third-highest rate of confirmed virus cases per capita.

Although the president talked Tuesday about easing restrictions that have hammered the national economy, Edwards suggested such conversations were too soon for Louisiana.

“Until we see the curve flattening and we can see daylight at the end of this tunnel, it’s hard for me to pick a date on the calendar and say, ‘By this date, we believe we’re going to be out on the other side,’” the governor said. He added: “Until we tackle the medical challenges in front of us, it is very difficult for me to see the economy coming back.”

A worker in protective suit and mask talks to a driver who has been through the COVID-19 drive-through testing at West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, La., on Friday, March 20, 2020. The two women in blue T-shirts also are masked. A handful of cars and trucks went through the site early Friday. Most drove straight out but a couple were directed into this area. (AP Photo/ Janet McConnaughey)

As businesses shuttered, unemployment claims have skyrocketed. Louisiana Labor Secretary Ava Dejoie said 71,000 people filed new unemployment applications last week, compared with the usual 1,400 or 1,500 people per week.

Edwards said with the current rate of increasing virus-related hospitalizations, the New Orleans region — which is the epicenter of the state’s outbreak — is estimated to run out of hospital capacity to treat patients on April 4.

To supplement the diminishing hospital space, the state is working to contract with hotels to provide additional hospital beds and converted three state parks into isolation sites that can receive quarantined patients who can’t go home, Edwards said. Louisiana also has purchased trailers to house virus patients. Edwards asked the Trump administration to set up a military field hospital in the state.

This coronavirus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people, who recover in a matter of weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in higher numbers among the elderly and people with underlying health problems.

Beyond space constraints, medical workers are having trouble replenishing supplies.

“Physicians and health care workers are discussing ways to reuse personal protective equipment, which we’ve never had to do before,” said Dr. Richard Oberhelman, an infectious disease specialist with the Tulane School of Health in New Orleans. “That’s certainly a point of concern as is the fact that we’re still on the upward slope of the curve.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards talks about the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. The Democratic governor requested a federal disaster declaration for his state, which has one of the nation's highest per-capita rates of virus infection. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

The governor requested federal reimbursement for state and local agencies’ emergency response work and other types of disaster assistance, as FEMA typically provides after a damaging flood or hurricane. He said government agencies in Louisiana already have spent $66 million on virus response efforts.

Edwards has ordered nonessential businesses to close and restaurants limited to takeout and delivery, banned gatherings over 10 people and called on residents to voluntarily stay at home unless they need to carry out essential tasks such as getting food or medicine. First responders and workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, doctors’ offices and other critical operations are exempt from the directive, which remains in effect through at least April 12.

Local leaders are reporting promising compliance with the restrictions, Edwards said. But he cautioned: “I know that there are still individuals out there who maybe haven’t taken this seriously yet. I implore them to do so. We’re running out of time.”

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Cover Photo: Jessica Fender, center, and Kerry Maloney, left, shy away from a woman asking for money after they felt she got too close, as the two exercise social distancing due to the new coronavirus outbreak, on a deserted Bourbon Street, normally busy with tourists and revelers, in New Orleans, Monday, March 23, 2020. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a shelter-in-place order for Louisiana which took effect today. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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