BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that a growing number of new coronavirus cases could push Louisiana past its capacity to deliver health care in as few as seven days, comparing the state's possible situation to that of Italy, where the virus has overwhelmed hospitals.
Edwards asked President Donald Trump for federal help on Trump's national conference call with governors, telling the president Louisiana's system could be strained beyond capacity in a week.
At a later news conference he said that timeline was a "worst-case scenario" that Louisiana could realize unless people stay safe distances from others and follow his statewide restrictions, which banned gatherings over 50 people, shuttered bars and gyms and limited restaurants to delivery and takeout.
"I am imploring every resident of the state of Louisiana, 'You have a role to play,'" the Democratic governor said. He added: "If we are not going to look like Italy in 10 days or two weeks, it will only be because of these mitigation measures."
The number of known virus infections in Louisiana jumped to 392, according to health department figures, up from 280 a day earlier. Louisiana has one of the nation's highest per capita rates of infection, Edwards said, with New Orleans at the epicenter of the state's outbreak.
Meanwhile, the state's death toll rose to 10 Thursday with the latest victims, a 44-year-old New Orleans resident with underlying health conditions and a 91-year-old resident of Lambeth House, the New Orleans retirement home where a cluster of cases prompted four other deaths, the governor said.
"My fear, based on modeling that I've received today, is that in as little as seven days we could start to exceed our capacity to deliver health care," Edwards told Trump.
He said the state sought federal approval to "surge patients" at the VA hospital in New Orleans.
"I'm going to try to get you immediate approval on the hospital," Trump told Edwards, in a telephone conference the president held with governors that was carried by news networks.
Tulane Health System in New Orleans said it planned to shut down a suburban emergency room Friday to move staff to its downtown New Orleans campus to deal with "a surge of COVID-19 and suspected COVID-19 patients." Other hospitals were canceling elective procedures to help free up space.
In addition to strained bed capacity, Edwards said health care facilities in Louisiana, like counterparts around the nation, were having difficulty getting medical equipment, particularly ventilators.
Though most of the cases are in the New Orleans region, the virus has shown up in 26 of Louisiana's 64 parishes.
The vast majority of people recover within weeks after catching the virus, and for most people, it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness requiring hospitalization.
Amid tightened restrictions on businesses, unemployment and food stamp applications have spiked in Louisiana amid the wider economic impact of the outbreak. More than 30,000 new claims for unemployment assistance had been filed by midday Thursday, up from 1,700 for all of last week, the state's labor secretary Ava Dejoie said. The online application system was overloaded, and Dejoie urged people to keep trying in non-peak hours, like during early morning hours.
Small businesses will be eligible to apply for low-interest federal disaster loans after the U.S. Small Business Administration approved a state request to make aid available statewide.
Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon issued new regulations requiring health insurers to waive co-pays and deductibles for COVID-19 testing, and banning insurers from requiring prior authorization for testing ordered by doctors. Insurers also must allow early refills of most non-opioid medications.
Also, Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, of Jefferson Parish, announced he now must work remotely on the national coronavirus response because he had an "extended meeting" last week with Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart of Florida, who tested positive. Scalise said he does not have any COVID-19 symptoms, but is self-isolating out of caution.