By David Jacobs | The Center Square
Louisiana is ready to begin hiring more people to track possible coronavirus infections, which is an important tool for loosening restrictions on more businesses, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday.
Edwards plans to announce Monday whether he will move Louisiana into the first phase of the White House-approved process to begin reopening sectors of the economy currently closed or limited. He said his administration was in the midst of a “deep dive” into the numbers regarding COVID-19 cases, symptoms, and hospitalizations, and gave no hint Friday of what the decision might be.
The Louisiana Department of Health currently has a 70-person team of “contact tracers” who interview COVID-19 patients, find out who they may have come in contact with, and then warn those additional people and ask them to stay home for two weeks to prevent further spread. State officials want to grow the team to at least 250 people and possibly up to 700 or more.
Extensive contact tracing, paired with an increase in testing, allows officials to quickly identify and mitigate COVID-19 hotspots, said Dr. Alex Billioux with the state Office of Public Health.
Participation in contract tracing will be voluntary for the public. Billioux said personal information will be guarded at the same level of security that hospitals use.
“Contact tracing is crucial but it alone will not get us past this pandemic,” LDH Secretary Courtney Phillips said. “No matter how many contact tracers we have, if individuals who are contacted by these contact tracers do not self-isolate then we will not succeed. We can get past this but only if we all do our part.”
State Republican lawmakers, who hold large majorities in both houses of the legislature, have discussed overriding Edwards’ emergency declaration in hopes of loosening restrictions on businesses sooner, though some fear the move could lead to a loss of federal funds. A House committee on Wednesday approved a measure that the sponsor said would take the “teeth” out of the governor’s “stay at home” order.
Edwards’ original order would have expired May 1. His decision to extend the order two more weeks angered many lawmakers who were under the impression the state was ready to enter phase one of the reopening process.
“Contact tracers must have graduated high school, feel comfortable having a telephone conversation with someone and also entering data,” state officials say. “They must be compassionate, able to protect and honor patient privacy, and complete a very detailed training session.” To apply, email ContactTracing@La.gov.
As of noon Friday, at least 2,154 Louisiana residents had been killed by COVID-19, along with 73 “probable deaths,” according to state health officials.
Almost 31,000 cases had been reported statewide, and more than 20,000 patients are believed to have recovered. Almost 1,400 people with the illness were hospitalized, and 185 of them were on ventilators.