March 23, 2020 by Tom Aswell (Louisiana Voice)
The coronavirus timeline for Louisiana is rather intriguing, to say the least.
- On Jan. 11, China reported its first death from COVID-19 virus. Within 10 days, confirmed cases of the virus were reported in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the U.S.
- On Jan. 23, Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million, was cut off by Chinese authorities in an attempt to contain the spread of coronavirus.
- The coronavirus outbreak was declared a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30.
- The next day, travel from Asia to the U.S. was restricted.
- On Feb. 5, the cruise ship Diamond Princess was quarantined. By Feb. 13, 218 passengers were infected.
- On Feb. 6, a USA Today headline asked “When the threat of coronavirus end?”
- The next day, a Chinese doctor who had first raised the alarm over COVID-19 died from the virus. In a week, more than 14,000 new cases were reported in Hubei Province.
- France announced the first coronavirus death in Europe on Feb. 14. A week later, two cases were reported in Iran.
- On Feb. 23, South Korea raised its threat alert level as concern about the spread of COVID-19 grew. That same day, Italy saw a major surge in cases as officials began locking down entire towns. By Feb. 24, Iran had 61 cases and 12 deaths, more than any other country but China.
Then, the next fateful day, on Feb. 25, nearly half-a-million people were allowed to crowd into the New Orleans French Quarter to celebrate Mardi Gras despite more than a month of clear signals that the threat was spreading and that the virus had already invaded the U.S.
Within two weeks, Louisiana would have its first case of COVID-19. The next day, two more were reported. All were in the immediate New Orleans area.
President Donald Trump has been on the receiving end of considerable criticism—and justifiably so—for his general lack of a cohesive plan to fight COVID-19 and for his delay in taking any action, choosing instead to call the threat a “hoax” designed to harm his presidency, making everything about him—as usual.
But officials in Louisiana could have been more proactive had there been trained, qualified leadership at the helm of the Louisiana Department of Hospitals.
Instead, LDH has been rudderless since former Secretary DR. REBEKAH GEE resigned, effective on Jan. 31. DR. COURTNEY PHILLIPS has been named as her successor, but isn’t scheduled to assume her new duties until next month. In the interim, the state’s largest agency is being run by LDH executive legal counsel STEPHEN RUSSO.
A lawyer, not a doctor.
Russo’s lack of qualifications to address a major health crisis aside, he brought considerable BAGGAGE with him when he was appointed to fill in until Phillips’s arrival.
Accordingly, Russo must be asked about the threat of COVID-19: what did you know and when did you know it? (with apologies to former U.S. Sen. James Baker of the Watergate hearings fame).
In Louisiana’s case, the health of its citizens was placed in the care of one who lacked the professional knowledge of how to deal with an epidemic, much less a pandemic. Simply put, he was ill-equipped by training to properly read the tea leaves. Did he even know enough to seek the counsel of those who could?
So, even as the virus spread from China to Korea to Iran to France and inevitably, to America, with indications it wasn’t about to slow down, New Orleans was allowed to proceed with an influx of nearly half-a-million people, rubbing elbows (and more), eating, drinking and living in proximity—even as the clouds were gathering.
Look at how the corona virus spread in Louisiana. It started in Jefferson and Orleans parishes, soon became an ominous blob on the COVID-19 MAP, a blob centered at first in New Orleans.
Then, it began moving north and west. It soon reached St. James, Ascension, East and West Baton Rouge and as of today (March 23), exactly two weeks after the first, lone case was revealed, there are 1,172 cases in Louisiana—concentrated in the New Orleans-Baton Rouge area.
As of today, there have been 34 deaths in the state, third highest total in the nation, behind only New York’s 123 and Washington’s 98.
Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20.
But the signs were there and one must wonder if a qualified health professional had been leading LDH at this critical time, might Gov. Edwards have been given a heads-up to call off the Mardi Gras celebration?
Sure, it would have been a blow to the gut of the New Orleans tourist industry in the short term but no less of a blow to the entire state’s economy that has now transpired for the long term.
Had there been someone in charge who could look at the evolving timeline as events unfolded and hoisted the warning flags, there’s a chance we would not have the third highest death total in the nation.
There’s also the chance that Louisiana would not be the only state in the Deep South subjected to the necessity of a lockdown.
Cabinet members, after all, are appointed not only to administer individual agencies, but also to give advice and counsel to governors—and presidents—on actions that need to be taken in a timely manner.