First coronavirus deaths in Acadiana announced, more confirmations to come

The gist: Somber and prayerful, Mayor-President Josh Guillory lowered his head and reported Lafayette’s first COVID-19 death today. The victim’s age and identity were not revealed. More fatalities will be announced shortly, once families are notified, he said, setting grave expectations for the coming days. Deaths in Acadia Parish and St. Martin Parish were also confirmed today by the Louisiana Department of Health.

“This is a sobering reminder of how serious this situation is,” Guillory said in a briefing with reporters. He looked abroad to Italy and down the road to New Orleans — where hospitals have been overwhelmed with floods of new cases — to hint at what could happen if many Lafayette residents remain personally complacent in their efforts to stymie the disease. The administration is receiving a high volume of complaints about neighbors flouting government urgings and societal pleas to stay home and take the pandemic seriously. Guillory and his spokesman, Communications Director Jamie Angelle, bemoaned their powerlessness to coerce the public into social distance. They would force people to stay apart if they could, Angelle said, but they can’t. (Sheriff Mark Garber said earlier this week that residents should call 911 to report blatant disregard for the governor’s stay-home order.)

Lafayette’s confirmed infections spiked today to 44. That’s a hefty increase over yesterday’s tally but remains an unreliable indicator of the scale of the local spread of COVID-19. Officials widely believe the number of actual cases far outstrips the number of detected infections, a pattern seen universally in areas affected by the disease. Hundreds of tests from the Cajundome screening site alone are still outstanding or unreported, and the results of those tests — sent to a variety of different commercial labs — can take more than 10 days to return. There are even more samples sent out of clinics and doctors’ offices, a handful at a time, that aren’t counted in the local tally. Lafayette’s testing operations lag roughly a week behind New Orleans, which surged to a pandemic total of well over 1,000 confirmed cases in the last few days alone. More than 20,000 tests have been completed statewide to date, the vast majority in commercial labs. 

St. Martin Parish saw three deaths today, among them a man in his early 40s. Acadia reported one. Fatalities skew higher among patients over the age of 70. Of the state’s 119 reported deaths, 69 were in that age group. 

Guillory’s administration is trying to get ahead of the economic impact. Unemployment claims are astronomical, mirroring the unprecedented millions of claims filed nationally. He announced business information resources going online next week. But locally, leaders are turning to the $2.2 trillion rescue package signed by the president today for relief. A webinar hosted by a coalition of regional economic agencies and chambers of commerce unpacked the details of the massive CARES Act, which passed out of the House of Representatives today and zipped to President Donald Trump’s desk for a signature. 

LCG has been proactive, tactically. Last week, LCG spearheaded a 311-based pre-screening process that has largely worked in streamlining the use of a still-thin supply of tests available to metro Lafayette. Guillory offered up hope that rapid tests were on the way but pointed to a long timeline, still a week or more away from arrival. On Friday, Guillory relayed discussions about transitioning seniors who have recovered from the virus out of hospital care among the administration, Lafayette’s two hospital systems and Lafayette-based LHC Group, one of the nation’s largest home-health providers. New Orleans has taken dramatic steps in the face of a near-nightmare, moving to use its convention center for hospital overflow. 

LCG has not spelled out its plan to get ahead of a possible public health crisis. Public statements since the crisis have noted ongoing conversations with state officials, hospital leadership and the nonprofit community but without many specifics; the administration has instead appealed to the fluidity of the situation in responding to questions about those plans. 

Hospital capacity has not yet been maxed here. So far, Lafayette’s hospitals have been able to manage the stream of patients, taking steps to conserve their supply of protective gear and other equipment. We don’t know how many ventilators the region has, as hospital representatives won’t disclose that information; Gov. John Bel Edwards has requested thousands from the federal government. Hospital leadership, in conjunction with the regional public health office, are preparing a regional surge plan to sort out how they could coordinate a response in the event of an avalanche of new cases. While most cases of COVID-19 aren’t fatal, the strain on hospital resources can lead to more deaths. Social distancing and other measures are efforts to ensure healthcare resources aren’t exhausted by a sudden crush of infections.