Members of the local health care community are urging Southwest Louisiana residents to take the steps recommended to stop COVID-19 from spreading.

During a press conference Thursday, officials stressed physical distancing of at least 6 feet, wearing a mask in public, avoiding crowds and frequent hand washing. They said lowering the number of COVID-19 cases is critical so hospitals don't become overwhelmed, and patients with other life-threatening needs can be cared for.

"When you look at the curve for Southwest Louisiana, specifically for Calcasieu Parish, it's always been on the rise," said Dr. Carlos Choucino, an infectious disease physician at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital. "If we continue that route, we're going to overwhelm the first responders."

Choucino said a person who wears a mask reduces the chance of transmitting COVID-19 to others by 90 percent. Those who wear a mask and are exposed to someone with COVID-19 have their risk of infection reduced by 30 percent.

"If you cannot wear a mask, then you should not go outside your house," he said. "This is like a fire; if you let it go wild, it is going to burn us all. This is a medical issue. This is a public health issue. This is not a political issue."

June McBride, an infection prevention nurse at West Calcasieu-Cameron Hospital, said as of Thursday, 42 percent of the hospital's patient population was COVID-19 positive or pending. She said the intensive care unit is full, with 75 percent of patients currently positive with COVID-19. More than 80 percent of patients on the hospital's second floor, where many COVID-19 patients are housed, are positive for the virus.

McBride asked the community to do its part in stopping the spread of COVID-19. She said not wearing a mask in public is not an option.

"Our health care workers are tired; we've been going through a lot," she said.

Calcasieu Parish Coroner Dr. Terry Welke dispelled rumors that the office is ruling deaths of people who have COVID-19, but suffer a fatal car crash or heart attack, as being caused by the virus.

"Here in Calcasieu Parish, we don't do that," he said.

Accusations that the coroner's office is receiving payments by ruling deaths as being caused by COVID-19 are false, Welke said.

The number of COVID-19 deaths in Calcasieu Parish has grown from 30 on April 30, to 59 on June 30, to 123 as of Thursday, Welke said.

"It's a sad situation," he said. "The numbers are going sky high. We're used to seeing deaths, but these numbers are astronomical."

Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh, Region 5 Office of Public Health director, said case numbers appear to be flattening, but that data is two weeks behind the current COVID-19 activity in the community.

"We still have some way to go before we're in a good place," she said.

Cavanaugh said there is a trend of lower demand for testing, which may be because fewer residents are being exposed to COVID-19. She said the "testing frenzy" from weeks earlier has dropped because the public is more educated on when to get tested.

Cavanaugh urged the public to trust local health care workers and continue to show them support.

Calcasieu Sheriff Tony Mancuso said roughly three to four weeks earlier, 20 to 25 deputies tested positive for COVID-19, with 75 employees in quarantine. Since tightening up safety measures, the department now has six deputies that tested positive for the virus and six employees in quarantine.

Mancuso encouraged residents to take personal responsibility in protecting themselves from being infected with COVID-19.

"Put the mask on; let's not be stubborn," he said. "If you see someone not wearing a mask, just don't go around them."

Calcasieu School Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus spoke about the decision to delay the start of the school year by 10 days and make adjustments to classroom size limits. The delay, he said, was done in case the community's overall case numbers improve, along with the fact that 7,500 out of 32,500 students chose to be taught online full-time. That extra time will ensure devices for students taking online courses and will offer more training for teachers.

Bruchhaus said finding antibacterial wipes is "like finding a needle in a haystack." He said 76,000 masks have been acquired, with a bid accepted to provide plexiglass partitions for teachers.

Bruchhaus said adjustments were also made once the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education called for a limit of 25 people, including teachers, in any one area of a school. Other modifications were made because Phase 2 limits school bus capacity to 50 percent.

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