The first phase of reopening certain businesses statewide begins today, along with the end of a stay-at-home order spanning nearly two months.
During a press conference Thursday, local health and elected officials thanked residents for taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, they urged the public to continue social distancing and frequent hand washing.
"We still have to be very cautious," said Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh, Region 5 Office of Public Health director. "You definitely don't want to be the first one to run into a crowd of people because there could be people in that crowd that are asymptomatic and can spread it."
The first phase of reopening lasts until June 5, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards. So far, overall hospitalizations in Southwest Louisiana remain stable, with COVID-like illnesses continuing to drop, Cavanaugh said.
"In general, the amount of COVID in our community is still pretty small," she said. "We're in a good place as we start to move into phase one."
Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said the city is ready to move into phase one of reopening. He encouraged residents to wear masks in public.
"The worst thing we could do is throw caution to the wind," Hunter said. "We absolutely could see a spike in cases. We could see a negative trajectory develop. We don't want to see that."
Most of the new cases reported recently on the state Department of Health website came from labs that had already performed tests, but are just now reporting the numbers electronically.
"There was kind of this data dump that was happening over the past couple of days," Cavanaugh said. "The number of true new cases that have been detected within the past couple of days still remain small."
More than 700 Southwest Louisiana residents have been tested over the past two weeks since mobile testing was opened to those who did not show symptoms of COVID-19, according to Dick Gremillion, Calcasieu Office of Emergency Preparedness director. He said a second round of testing at various locations throughout Calcasieu will be announced today. So far, results have shown many testing negative for COVID, Cavanaugh said.
Tests done at the mobile sites only reveal if a person currently has COVID, Cavanaugh said. An antibody test indicates if a person already had the virus.
Mobile testing sites are for adults 16 and older because people have to insert the testing swab themselves. Cavanaugh said parents should contact their child's doctor or pediatrician to have them tested for COVID-19.
Cavanaugh said there is an emphasis on testing those high-risk individuals who may be living in close quarters, including nursing homes and homeless shelters. The elderly, as well as residents with chronic conditions, should take extra precautions and continue to stay home, she said.
It is safe for residents to seek care, whether emergency or preventative, at local hospitals, Cavanaugh said. Those with certain medical conditions should not avoid hospital visits.
Contact tracing isn't a new method, having been used to determine the spread of other contagious diseases, such as measles and tuberculosis, Cavanaugh said. She said it is completely safe and confidential and is meant to identify health threats in the community.
"This is a time-proven strategy," she said. "It's not intended to be punitive in any way. If I was in the community and was exposed to something that could threaten my family and children, I would want to know about it."
Cavanaugh said local doctors have reported children who may display symptoms that could be consistent with COVID, but nothing has been proven so far.
Hunter said City Hall, Central School and other city buildings will reopen on Monday, except for the Civic Center. Green space is open at city parks, but playground equipment remains closed.
Those wanting to pay water bills or fill out online permit applications can visit the city's website, cityoflakecharles.com.
Calcasieu Sheriff Tony Mancuso said the office will reopen on Monday by appointment only. Face-to-face visitation at the Calcasieu Correctional Center will remain closed. There have been no outbreaks at the center, he said.
Overall crime is down, with little spikes in domestic violence, Mancuso said.
"That's not out of control," he said.
Denise Durel, United Way of Southwest Louisiana president and CEO, said 100,000 pounds of food was distributed to roughly 2,900 residents earlier this week. Another food giveaway is scheduled for June.
She said the 211 information hotline has received 68,000 calls statewide.
Durel asked residents to fill out a COVID-19 impact survey that will be used to direct services and programs to assist residents in the region. The survey, available at unitedwayswla.org/survey, is confidential and open until May 22.
The next scheduled briefing is set for May 28.