The bad news is Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards made mistakes in his responses to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak in the state. The worse news is as a result he can’t do much to attenuate its ill-effects, which are among the worst in the country.
Essentially, Edwards did three things wrong:
- He discounted the massive incubation effect of Mardi Gras and the proactive strategy it required to mitigate.
- He banked everything on a one-size-fits-all reactive social distancing strategy.
- He became locked into that where intensifying it brings few rewards with many costs and leaves no genuinely good alternatives.
It’s difficult to blame any politician for not shutting down Carnival. On its start Feb. 14, the U.S. had only 13 cases and the only warnings came in the form of a mild Centers for Disease Control message about China and Republican Pres. Donald Trump’s travel ban there. But by its end Feb. 25, Venice Carnival had been cancelled early and Washington, where the first case emerged, had several hundred suspected cases monitored through a strategy that had developed testing capacity early. These showed that the disease was on the verge of breakout in the U.S. and Carnival had intensified the effect into a ticking time bomb.
Edwards dropped the ball after that. Priority should have gone to ramping up testing capacity so when the first suspected case occurred in early March, the state could follow Washington’s lead (which tried to emulate to date successful strategies in South Korea, Germany, and Sweden). He also should have, as soon as the first suspected case showed, immediately and severely limited gatherings in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes along with closing non-essential businesses and limited public access to the sick and elderly. This follows California’s approach, which currently has fewer cases and many fewer deaths than Louisiana despite having over eight times the population.
As well, he should have warned statewide of imminent closures of these kinds and to universities and set out social distancing guidance then. Then, if other hotspots broke out – predictably where Carnival had major and prolonged celebrations – he could have imposed the same conditions as around New Orleans and then shutter universities statewide (giving them time to transition to distance learning). This was the best that could be done without widespread testing needed to nip transmission in the bud, at least delaying and even avoiding future lockdowns in other parts of the state.
Instead, he waited nearly a week and then commenced with the first of a series of progressively tighter restrictions applied indiscriminately statewide. Rather than allow “herd immunity” to develop quickly in healthy populations while shielding the vulnerable, this only strung out its acquisition while causing unnecessary economic hardship.
Keeping the sick and healthy sheltered together has proved ineffective relative to targeted approaches. After four weeks Washington had flattened the infection curve to a rolling seven-day average of 11 percent (now down to seven percent), while Louisiana is stuck at 19 percent 28 days in. That’s a difference in the number of cases doubling in a week compared to every half-week.
This means Louisiana’s recovery will drag out much longer with a substantially greater toll in suffering both physically and financially. But it’s water under the bridge; the question now is what tactical corrections to make to dampen these consequences. Lessons from the two states as hard-hit as Louisiana, New York and New Jersey, don’t provide much encouragement.
New Jersey Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy deployed restrictions generally of the same kind and around the same time as did Edwards, plus activating the National Guard. Yet New Jersey as a whole still vies with Louisiana for the second-highest per capita infection rate, although none of its counties are as bad off as Orleans and Jefferson.
New York Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo went further, sending in the National Guard three weeks ago to one of the two counties nationally harder hit than Orleans, Westchester, and established even stricter quarantining measures there. The other hardest-hit county across the Hudson, Rockland, asked for the same last week, but infections haven’t slowed much in either place. New York committed somewhat the same mistake as Louisiana when it allowed (even as some organizations cancelled their events) its 15 days of Chinese Lunar New Year festivities to take place ending Feb. 9.
Problematically, Louisiana now is locked in to only one course, with the only worse option being doing nothing. At this point, more draconian measures have diminished returns and would create more economic and budgetary headaches. Even a drastic strategy change won’t work now as a result.
Edwards blew it – along with other urban leaders such as Democrat New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Republican Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng who could have at least adopted the California approach on their own when Edwards whiffed on the Washington approach – and Louisiana will have to just ride it out as a result.