Louisiana Attorney General Fights School Mask Mandate as COVID Spikes Among Kids

New Orleans — One look at the Louisiana Department of Health’s COVID dashboard is enough to set off alarm bells. On a map of the state, each one of Louisiana’s 64 parishes is colored red because the risk of COVID transmission is considered to be at the highest level.

Driven by the Delta variant and compounded by a chronically underfunded public health system and some of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, the pandemic’s fourth wave is slamming Louisiana just in time for the new school year. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s Democratic governor and Republican attorney general continue to spar over public health restrictions, including a new requirement that students wear masks in school.

K-12 students across southern Louisiana headed back to school for in-person lessons on Monday as COVID cases among children in the state continued to rise faster than in any other state in the nation. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a conservative Democrat who has generally followed the advice of public health experts during the pandemic, said on Friday that more than 6,000 children under the age of 18 tested positive for COVID in Louisiana last week alone.

COVID cases among Louisiana children and teenagers increased by more than 16 percent over the past two weeks, which is about four times the national average, according to the latest report from the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP). Hawaii, Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri have also seen cases among young people rise much faster than the national average.

Children have generally been considered to be at low risk of severe COVID, but that logic appears to be shifting with the rise of the Delta variant. Edwards said that 13 children were hospitalized at just one hospital in New Orleans, including six infants under the age of 2.

Ochsner Health, Louisiana’s largest nonprofit health care system, reported that one in four COVID tests performed on children under the age of 18 came back positive last week. That’s a 25 percent positivity rate among young people, up from only 4 percent in late June.

In Louisiana, vaccination rates among eligible youth (between the ages of 12 and 17) lag far behind much of the nation. Children 12 and under are not yet eligible for vaccines.

Still, schools in the New Orleans area and beyond are prioritizing in-person education after a difficult year of at least partially remote learning. Yellow buses waited outside schools in New Orleans on Monday. At the McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School in the Seventh Ward, a small group of masked students left class around lunchtime with a supervisor, who instructed them to hold hands and stay together while extending their arms to keep some semblance of distance from each other.

As the Delta variant sweeps through unvaccinated populations in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and other COVID hotspots across the Gulf South, the number of overall cases in the United States has jumped by 112 percent over the past two weeks, according to The New York Times. The daily number of new cases is rising fastest in Louisiana, where at least 2,244 people are hospitalized for COVID, a 124 percent change from two weeks ago.

About 50.7 percent of the population of the U.S. is fully vaccinated compared to 37 percent in Louisiana. In southwestern Louisiana, the vaccination rate dips to 27 percent. Statewide, only 23 percent of children ages 12 through 17 have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to AAP. Nationally, 51 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds have received at least one dose, along with 41 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds.

Just a few weeks ago, people in New Orleans crowded back into bars and restaurants and gathered for parties and events in the street as COVID restrictions were lifted and infections remained low. Stores and businesses stopped requiring customers to wear masks, and many chose to go without one. Tourists also filled the French Quarter, with an untold number of unvaccinated visitors at risk of spreading the virus.

Now, lone bicyclists riding through in the open air on the streets of New Orleans are wearing masks again. The already rescheduled New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, perhaps the Crescent City’s second largest party next to Mardi Gras, was just canceled for a second time.

In Louisiana, the unvaccinated account for at least 91 percent of hospitalizations and 84 percent of deaths, according to the state health department.

Hospitals across the state are already strained and fear they could soon be overwhelmed by the surge if Delta is not brought under control. Louisiana has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country, and as Truthout has reported, years of austerity politics have left the state and its residents unprepared for a pandemic.

New Orleans has reinstated its indoor mask mandate, as has the rest of the state for as long as infection rates remain high. Governor Edwards is also requiring masking in schools for everyone above four years old, with exceptions for people with medical conditions and those engaged in activities such as public speaking. This puts Edwards at odds with the Republican governors of nearby Florida and Texas, who have worked to thwart local mask mandates.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, pushed back against the mask mandate for schools last week, arguing that the governor does not have authority to require masking in K-12 schools. In a non-binding legal opinion, Landry argued that only state lawmakers and education officials can make pandemic safety measures such as masking and temperature checks mandatory in schools. Landry has routinely attacked Edwards for instituting pandemic restrictions and encouraged parents to seek a philosophical or religious exemption from the mask mandate for their children in school, according to the Associated Press. The governor said his attorney general is “completely wrong” about masking in schools.

After delivering dire public health warnings and imploring his constituents to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated on Friday, Edwards asked Louisianians of all faiths to pray that people would do “everything they can” to slow the spread of the virus.