BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana's governor on Tuesday asked the White House to declare a major disaster in his state to free up more direct federal aid to cope with the surging coronavirus outbreak, warning that the New Orleans area could run out of hospital beds by early April.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' request to President Donald Trump comes as the number of people in Louisiana confirmed to have COVID-19 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 issued a statewide "stay at home" order for most of Louisiana's 4.6 million residents that began Monday evening.
"The response to the spread of COVID-19 has overwhelmed the capabilities of state and local resources," the Democratic governor said in his letter to the Trump administration, released Tuesday. "I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of state and local governments."
Trump has granted federal disaster declarations for California, Washington and New York, according to the Louisiana governor's office. Edwards said Louisiana has the third-highest rate of confirmed virus cases per capita.
Although the president talked Tuesday about easing restrictions that have hammered the national economy, Edwards suggested such conversations were too soon for Louisiana.
"Until we see the curve flattening and we can see daylight at the end of this tunnel, it's hard for me to pick a date on the calendar and say, 'By this date, we believe we're going to be out on the other side,'" the governor said. He added: "Until we tackle the medical challenges in front of us, it is very difficult for me to see the economy coming back."
As businesses shuttered, unemployment claims have skyrocketed. Louisiana Labor Secretary Ava Dejoie said 71,000 people filed new unemployment applications last week, compared with the usual 1,400 or 1,500 people per week.
Edwards said with the current rate of increasing virus-related hospitalizations, the New Orleans region — which is the epicenter of the state's outbreak — is estimated to run out of hospital capacity to treat patients on April 4.
To supplement the diminishing hospital space, the state is working to contract with hotels to provide additional hospital beds and converted three state parks into isolation sites that can receive quarantined patients who can't go home, Edwards said. Louisiana also has purchased trailers to house virus patients. Edwards asked the Trump administration to set up a military field hospital in the state.
This coronavirus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people, who recover in a matter of weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in higher numbers among the elderly and people with underlying health problems.
Beyond space constraints, medical workers are having trouble replenishing supplies.
"Physicians and health care workers are discussing ways to reuse personal protective equipment, which we've never had to do before," said Dr. Richard Oberhelman, an infectious disease specialist with the Tulane School of Health in New Orleans. "That's certainly a point of concern as is the fact that we're still on the upward slope of the curve."
The governor requested federal reimbursement for state and local agencies' emergency response work and other types of disaster assistance, as FEMA typically provides after a damaging flood or hurricane. He said government agencies in Louisiana already have spent $66 million on virus response efforts.
Edwards has ordered nonessential businesses to close and restaurants limited to takeout and delivery, banned gatherings over 10 people and called on residents to voluntarily stay at home unless they need to carry out essential tasks such as getting food or medicine. First responders and workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, doctors' offices and other critical operations are exempt from the directive, which remains in effect through at least April 12.
Local leaders are reporting promising compliance with the restrictions, Edwards said. But he cautioned: "I know that there are still individuals out there who maybe haven't taken this seriously yet. I implore them to do so. We're running out of time."