BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As anti-masking debates have intensified, Gov. John Bel Edwards called on parents Friday to take seriously the coronavirus risks for children and to ensure students stay masked up, warning that Louisiana already is seeing COVID-19 cases emerge quickly with the return to classrooms.
In the last few days, 28% of all positive tests for the coronavirus illness were in people under the age of 18, Edwards said at his weekly COVID-19 briefing. Schools that resumed classes this month already have reported more than 5,300 students and 750 employees who have contracted COVID-19.
Those numbers only are expected to grow larger in a state that ranks No. 2 per capita in the nation for the amount of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus disease over the last week.
“Transmission is very high,” the Democratic governor said. “Simply put, we cannot keep our schools open or our kids safe today without masks.”
Earlier this month, Edwards enacted a statewide mask mandate for all indoor public spaces, including at K-12 schools and universities. That has prompted angry outcries from some parents who argue they should decide whether to put a face covering on their children. This week, hundreds of those parents packed two different hearings to complain about the mask mandate.
Hospital leaders say they are seeing more children with severe symptoms from COVID-19 and more hospitalized in this latest surge driven by the delta variant. Those children are not only getting sicker from the illness, but they are also bringing it home to family members, worsening the coronavirus outbreak, they warn.
“Our kids are absolutely getting COVID. They’re absolutely spreading COVID,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the governor’s chief public health adviser.
Dr. Kimberly Mukerjee, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Tulane University and Children’s Hospital New Orleans, said clinics are seeing “unprecedented” levels of COVID-19 infection among children.
“Now is not the time to politicize things that we know are excellent measures to mitigate the impact of a preventable illness on children,” said Mukerjee, urging masks for children in school as she spoke at Edwards’ briefing.
Edwards said if parents and school administrators don’t follow the mask requirements, it’s unlikely schools will be able to continue in-person classes because they’ll be faced with repeated outbreaks.
Asked about the parents who criticize his mask mandate as infringing on their personal rights, the governor replied: “There is no right to unreasonably endanger the lives of others. That doesn’t exist.”
While new cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 remain high across Louisiana, the state is seeing the possibility of some improvement this week. The percentage of coronavirus tests returning positive has lessened slightly, and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has declined the past two days after 16 days of record-breaking increases.
Still, Kanter warned it’s too soon to suggest that’s a promising trend, with 2,999 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, one of the highest numbers at any point of the pandemic.
“There just remains a ton of COVID out there,” he said.
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