BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana became the fourth state to receive a federal disaster declaration because of the coranvirus, a designation from President Donald Trump that acknowledges the scale of Louisiana's outbreak and unlocks millions of dollars in federal aid for the state's response.
Trump granted the designation requested by Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday night, adding Louisiana to a list that includes California, Washington and New York.
Louisiana has the third-highest rate of confirmed virus cases per capita, Edwards said.
"I am not diminishing the challenges being presented in any other state, whether it's New York or New Jersey or Washington state or any state out there. I just don't want the federal government or anybody out there minimizing the challenges we have here in Louisiana," the Democratic governor said. "The trajectory we're on is very problematic, the growth rate that we're seeing very problematic."
The number of people in Louisiana confirmed to have the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus has surged to nearly 1,400, only two weeks after the state's first positive test. Forty-six Louisiana residents have died from the disease, according to the state health department. Edwards has warned that the New Orleans area — the epicenter of Louisiana's outbreak of COVID-19 — could run out of hospital beds by April 4.
Edwards issued a statewide "stay at home" order for most of Louisiana's 4.6 million residents that began Monday evening.
To supplement diminishing hospital space, Louisiana is working to contract with hotels to provide additional hospital beds as needed, Edwards said. Three state parks have been converted into isolation sites that can receive quarantined patients who can't go home, and 26 people were staying at those sites by Tuesday evening, according to the governor's office. Edwards also asked the Trump administration to set up a military field hospital in the state.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover. But the virus is highly contagious and has caused a global pandemic.
Louisiana, like other states, is scrounging for gloves, masks and ventilators to treat the sick.
"The people that manage logistics for the hospital are just at it 24/7, looking at needs and seeking out supplies," said Dr. Jimmy Ellis, a cancer specialist affiliated with West Jefferson Medical Center outside New Orleans.
"We're not as well prepared as we could have been had the alarm been sounded a little sooner," he said, putting much of the responsibility on Trump. "It did us no good that we spent January and a lot of February having the president of the United States telling us it was a hoax, that it's just no big deal and it's just going to go away."
The president's declaration dates Louisiana's disaster back to Jan. 20, meaning federal aid can reimburse for certain expenses that have happened since that date. Federal funding will be available for crisis counseling, for emergency protective measures taken by state and local government agencies and other items, according to the White House announcement.
In a statement Wednesday thanking Trump, Edwards said the declaration should "provide us with more tools and equipment to treat the sick and increase our hospital capacity."
Government agencies in Louisiana already have spent $66 million on virus response efforts, according to Edwards' letter seeking the federal disaster declaration.