VP Pence heads to Louisiana amid renewed surge in virus cases

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence travels Tuesday to Louisiana, which has reemerged as one of the nation’s hot spots for the coronavirus only months after seeming to contain its outbreak.

The Republican vice president was scheduled to meet with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, members of the congressional delegation and state health officials to talk about the state’s response to the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.

Pence’s visit comes as Louisiana’s confirmed virus cases, percentage of positive tests and COVID-19 patient hospitalization rates are surging — worrying public health experts about the level of virus spread in a state that previously appeared successful in combating its outbreak.

“Louisiana has been on the radar, literally front and center, of the White House Coronavirus Task Force since the very beginning. We’ve never come off of that radar,” Edwards said. “I think that’s a big reason why the vice president chose to come to Baton Rouge and to Louisiana.”

In response to the spike in virus cases and hospitalizations, the Democratic governor enacted a statewide mask mandate for people ages 8 and older that took effect Monday. He also returned bars to take-out and delivery only. Restaurants, casinos, gyms, salons and other businesses remain open with occupancy restrictions.

While in Baton Rouge, Pence also is planning a discussion at Louisiana State University’s Tiger Stadium focused on fall college reopening plans and the future of university sports programs in the pandemic. LSU’s Tigers won the college football national championship title in January.

The Baton Rouge region is one of three metropolitan areas where federal officials recently set up new drive-thru coronavirus testing sites aimed at boosting testing to better track and fight the spread of COVID-19. The federally supported sites in Louisiana’s capital city region will remain up and running through July 18.

Edwards said that federal support has helped Louisiana reach more than 304,000 virus tests so far in July — far surpassing the state’s monthly goal of 200,000 administered tests. Still, the Baton Rouge test sites have not drawn the thousands of people daily that officials hoped.

More than 3,300 Louisiana residents have died from COVID-19, according to the state health department. Louisiana again has moved into the top five states for new virus cases per capita in recent days, adding anywhere from 1,300 to 2,600 new cases daily over the last week.

The sizable boost in cases can’t be explained solely by increased testing, because the percentage of tests coming back positive is growing — and the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized is increasing as well, reaching 1,308 people Monday.

Louisiana has had nearly 80,000 confirmed cases since its first positive coronavirus test in March. Public health experts say the actual infection rate is likely much higher. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. But for some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.