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 the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus 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 behind only New York and Washington.
Louisiana's governor 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 contracting with hotels to provide additional hospital beds when needed 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 also has asked the Trump administration to set up a military field hospital in the state.
Beyond space constraints, medical workers are having trouble replenishing their 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."
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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 also asked for full federal payments for activities deemed a homeland security defense. He said state and local government in Louisiana already have spent $66 million on virus response efforts.
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.
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 until at least April 12.
"The virus is here, and everybody needs to act as if they already have it.," Edwards urged his state's residents in a primetime TV broadcast Monday night.
As more businesses are forced to shutter because of the coronavirus, unemployment claims have skyrocketed. The state's labor secretary Ava Dejoie said 71,000 people filed new unemployment applications last week, compared to the usual 1,400 or 1,500 people per week.
Amid the disruption caused by the epidemic, Louisiana's state revenue department on Monday announced the deadline for filing state income taxes has been pushed back to July 15.
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Louisiana has 3rd-highest rate of confirmed coronavirus cases per capita; Governor seeks disaster declaration