Amid positive Louisiana trends, unexpectedly high death rate

Posted at 10:42 AM, Apr 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-24 18:15:56-04

BATON ROUGE, La. - Even amid positive trends in Louisiana's coronavirus outbreak, officials are grappling with a state death rate from the virus that appears higher than other states' rates while outpacing Louisiana's own modeling.

The Louisiana Department of Health offered reporters a first detailed look Friday at the state's modeling of deaths from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. And while Louisiana's falling hospitalization rate is tracking the projected results for Gov. John Bel Edwards' statewide stay-at-home order, the death rate is higher than expected.

More than 1,600 Louisiana residents have died from COVID-19, about 6% of all positive tests for the coronavirus announced so far in the state. But that testing data doesn't reflect those who never develop symptoms and never get tested for the virus.

The health department estimates that 2% of Louisianans who contract COVID-19 are dying from it, based on modeling of the number of residents presumed to have been infected, said Jeanie Donovan, policy director for the agency.

The department is trying to determine why the death rate is double what was expected and varies considerably among regions of the state, she said.

Among the theories: Louisiana's higher-than-average percentage of residents who have high blood pressure, obesity, chronic kidney disease and other health conditions may be a factor. Also the state may be seeing a larger share of older people and those with underlying health conditions being infected than the general population, which could skew the death rate, Donovan said.

The modeling details came amid the release of the state's first estimates of recoveries from the coronavirus: nearly 15,000 people.

It also came as Edwards' task force looking at how to address racial disparities in coronavirus statistics held its first meeting Friday. Edwards estimated Friday that African Americans account for close to 60% of the COVID-19 deaths in the state, although they make up roughly 32% of the state's population.

Though other states are seeing similar coronavirus disparities, Louisiana's Democratic governor said: "We shouldn't take comfort just because we have company."

Dr. Sandra Brown, a co-chair of the task force, said the group's work will begin with analysis of volumes of data while the state works to continue ramping up testing. Edwards announced a $500,000 grant from charitable foundations to help fund the group's work.

Edwards, meanwhile, is considering his next step as current rules restricting public gatherings and business closures near an April 30 expiration. He's expected to make an announcement as early as Monday.

Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor who joined Edwards for his daily briefing to reporters, said Louisiana's death rate shouldn't be a large factor in decisions about how to lift restrictions and reopen the economy.

More important factors, Cassidy said, are trends in hospitalization rates, ventilator usage and new infections.

In another coronavirus development, state officials Friday filed an appeal notice after a Baton Rouge-based federal judge gave them five days to submit a plan for improving hygiene and social distancing at the Rayburn Correctional Center in Washington Parish. U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson's ruling came in a lawsuit originally filed in 2018 by an inmate challenging treatment of health conditions in prison.

The Corrections Department has reported three coronavirus-related state prison inmate deaths: two at the state penitentiary at Angola; and one at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel.

Louisiana's number of known coronavirus infections increased by about 400 on Friday, surpassing 26,000 as the state continues efforts to increase testing. But hospitalizations continued to drop, falling below 1,700 Friday after peaking at 2,134 earlier this month. The number of patients needing ventilators was 286 Friday. It peaked at 571 in early April.

Edwards has rejected suggestions that there should be a parish-by-parish approach to reopening businesses. A proposed "framework" for reopening issued this week by nearly 50 local and state business groups also encourages a statewide approach.

Still, as similar discussions take place around the world, some officials want Edwards to adopt a parish-by-parish approach. Among them is Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell, the leader of the Senate's GOP delegation, who posted an online petition calling for that approach. Edwards has said his plan will be based on benchmarks in White House guidance.

(Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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