Broome to keep Baton Rouge in phase two for now, but issues warning

Contrary to much speculation this week, East Baton Rouge Parish will not revert to phase one restrictions—at least, not for the next few weeks, Mayor Sharon Weston Broome told reporters today during a news conference.

But that doesn’t mean Baton Rouge would never go back to phase one.

“If we don’t change courses in the next few weeks, we may not have any other choice,” Broome said. “Consider this a warning. I’m giving us one more chance to make this change.”

At today’s news conference, Broome was flanked by health officials from Baton Rouge General, Our Lady of the Lake, Ochsner, the Baton Rouge Clinic and Lane Regional Medical Center, all of whom stressed the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing and following CDC guidelines.

Dr. Louis Minsky, BRG’s chief of staff, said today’s case numbers look similar to the second COVID-19 surge Louisiana saw over the summer. However, at testing sites, the hospital has seen higher positive rates in the past month than it did in all of 2020.

Meanwhile, Dr. Catherine O’Neal, OLOL’s infectious disease expert, pleaded with residents to stay in their “bubbles,” saying that while full capacity for the hospital is typically between 90 and 100 ICU beds, OLOL today has 127 patients in ICU beds, including 120 COVID-positive patients. It’s stretched health care workers to the point where many are calling in daily, sick with the virus.

“We ask people to work overtime, stay in the hospital, feed them and pray for them because that’s the only thing we know to do when we’re at the end,” O’Neal said. “Today, we don’t have anything left in our back pocket.”

Some institutions, like Lane Regional Medical Center, are reporting a shortage of vaccines. Dr. Charles Thompson, the hospital’s chief of staff, says Lane received 540 vaccines, which means only 270 staff members can be vaccinated in the immediate future. That, coupled with a yearslong nursing shortage, has caused the hospital to be short-staffed amid an influx of COVID-19 patients.

Medical officials say cases began to spike after Halloween and rose over the holidays, likely stemming from private gatherings among families and friends.

“It is obvious that we have a problem in this community with compliance,” Broome said. “If I hear about a large party within city limits, I’ll be sending the police to shut it down.”

For the most part, local businesses have been complying with COVID-19 guidelines, according to Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning and Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Ernest P. Legier Jr., who have conducted hundreds of “compliance visits” in recent months. 

“We find that about 10 percent to 11 percent of our visits yield a [compliance] recommendation,” Browning said. “That doesn’t mean they did anything wrong, it’s just important that we educate people and remain vigilant.”

Other speakers included Cocha owner Enrique Pinerua, who urged fellow business owners to comply with city and state guidelines, and Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp, who regularly gets calls from business owners whose competitors aren’t complying.

“I don’t want to put restrictions on our businesses that have been doing the right thing,” Broome said, “but for those that aren’t, we will enforce them.”