Published 3:22 PM EDT Jun 29, 2020
It took nearly two months for Ouachita Parish to reach 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and slightly over one month for it to move from 1,000 to 2,000 cases.
As numbers in the parish have climbed, all 12 northeastern Louisiana parishes comprising Region 8 have also seen expected increases with rural parishes like East Carroll and Madison adding hundreds of cases in a period of weeks.
The state has frequently labeled the Monroe area as a coronavirus hotspot, and the region even appeared in some national reports as a top U.S. hotspot.
However, the increase in cases isn’t necessarily tied to ever growing community spread. Increased testing is also continuing to augment numbers, particularly in areas with a smaller population like northeast Louisiana.
Dr. Frank Welch, Medical Director for the Bureau of Community Preparedness for the State of Louisiana, said whether there are more cases or more testing picking up people who have mild illnesses is a frequent point of debate.
“That is really what I think happened in Region 8 about a month ago,” Welch said. “The hospitals, the public health authorities, and a lot of people in Region 8 really took coronavirus seriously and started to do a whole bunch of testing. Because you do not have a big population there, we caught a whole lot of cases we might not have caught otherwise.”
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Welch said he believes these factors have contributed to the Monroe area showing up as a national hotspot.
“In Region 8, we’ve got a level number of cases,” Welch said. “It’s not going down, unfortunately, but a least it’s not going up and the hospitalizations so far are actually just slightly less. That is good news in Region 8. What worries me is everywhere else, and everywhere around it has an increased number of cases. I’m wondering if Region 8 isn’t a week or two behind everybody else.”
When COVID-19 originally spread through Louisiana, Region 8’s peak for cases was projected weeks behind south Louisiana. Welch said with Arkansas and other locations nationwide now experiencing increases during different phases of reopening, it would be logical that Region 8 caught up.
While increased testing has led to higher case numbers, Welch explained that the reverse is also true statewide because testing was extremely limited at the beginning of the outbreak.
“We were only testing people who were hospitalized, who were very ill with no other cause, so certainly the number of cases of coronavirus is significantly higher than that,” Welch said. “We just weren’t testing people. We have to really understand that 53,400 is a real underestimate of how many people have had coronavirus.”
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Throughout the past few months, state data has routinely adjusted with surges on certain days attributed to dumps of backlogged data from labs and a recent downward adjustment to remove duplicate data.
Welch said he believes there will still be some duplication and correction going forward due to increased testing — including routine tests at medical facilities like nursing homes — and new types of tests, but the large adjustments are over.
“That is just the reality of what we are doing,” Welch explained. “That doesn’t mean coronavirus doesn’t exist. It means you have to have a pretty good process to clean up your data to make sure it’s accurate.”
In northeast Louisiana, the increase of cases statewide and nationwide may present an additional burden on hospitals as individual cases progress.
“It takes three or four weeks, especially when we talk about the more serious complications like hospitalizations or even deaths, so with the rest of the state, what you really worry about with the increase in the number of cases is — is it going to be followed by an increased number of hospitalizations?” Welch said, noting experience says it is.
This presents a greater problem in regional medical hubs like Monroe.
Welch called COVID-19 a six-foot away disease that spreads among family members and friends.
“That’s why when it gets into some of these rural communities, it’s spreading among family members,” Welch said. “It’s spreading among close contacts. That is a real concern when they don’t have a hospital nearby or access to hospital care. … They are going to have to go to a bigger city where they do have hospital care that includes intensive care and ventilators, and that may overwhelm those few hospitals that are in the area.”
Even with statewide and nationwide cases showing increases, Welch said, Region 8 can still keep levels constant or even experience a drop by following the same basic guidelines health officials have recommended for weeks and months.
“I think if we can all sort of get on the same teams of not going into closed rooms with a whole bunch of people without our mask on and washing our hands, staying six feet apart from each other — that is what is going to slow it down,” Welch said.
“By doing these simple things no matter what your political leaning is, we can have it all. We can have an open, stable economy. We can have safety for everyone but especially the more vulnerable members of our community.”
Northeast Louisiana coronavirus data as of June 26, 2020
Deaths: 72Cases: 2,199Commercial Tests: 24,688State Tests: 1,061
Deaths: 14Cases: 455Commercial Tests: 3,543State Tests: 661
Deaths: 1Cases: 425Commercial Tests: 2,437State Tests: 145
Deaths: 24Cases: 405Commercial Tests: 4,314State Tests: 107
Deaths: 2Cases: 331Commercial Tests: 2,158State Tests: 106
Deaths: 18Cases: 300Commercial Tests: 5,824State Tests: 311
Deaths: 8Cases: 227Commercial Tests: 3,959State Tests: 356
Deaths: 16Cases: 206Commercial Tests: 2,152State Tests: 98
Deaths: 4Cases: 168Commercial Tests: 3,494State Tests: 77
Deaths: 5Cases: 114Commercial Tests: 1,882State Tests: 47
Deaths: 1Cases: 103Commercial Tests: 1,759State Tests: 120
Deaths: 0Cases: 24Commercial Tests: 372State Tests: 29