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Edwards says he's likely to keep schools closed rest of school year

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday he’s likely to keep Louisiana’s K-12 public schools shuttered for the rest of the school year because of the coronavirus, in response to calls from state education leaders not to reopen them because of public health risks.

Edwards’ school closure order remains in place through the end of April. Louisiana’s top education board, school superintendents and school boards have sent requests to the Democratic governor, asking him to extend the closures through the end of the school year, which runs until the final weeks of May.

“I just want to make sure that I’m clear on what they’re requesting,” Edwards said, adding that he expects to make an announcement soon. “Obviously there’s a really good chance that I’m going to quickly do what they’re asking me to do.”

Louisiana has seen encouraging signs this week in its fight against the virus outbreak. The rate of new hospitalizations has slowed, and the number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators has decreased.

The governor credits people physically distancing from others and avoiding trips away from their homes as much as possible with helping to slow the rate of new infections — and he’s cautioned Louisianans to keep it up. He’s also warned that until the country finds a virus treatment and vaccine, “I don’t know that you’re going to see life as we knew it before COVID-19.”

More than 18,000 people in Louisiana have confirmed infections of the COVID-19 disease, about 11% of whom are hospitalized, according to health department data. The number of virus patients statewide who needed ventilators fell again Thursday. Of the more than 2,000 virus patients in hospitals, 473 were on ventilators, down from 490 a day earlier.

While the data is starting to look less grim, the number of deaths from the virus continues to climb, reaching 702 on Thursday, an increase of 50 from the prior day.

Drive-thru testing continues to increase. Walmart launched a testing site Wednesday in Shreveport that initially will see first responders, health care workers and individuals over 65 years old who have symptoms, according to Dr. Alex Billioux, head of the state Office of Public Health. A similar drive-thru testing location will open Saturday at Walmart in the hot spot of St. John the Baptist Parish. People who are tested at those locations will be able to use an app to access their results, Billioux said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough that resolve in several weeks. But some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can suffer severe symptoms and require respirators to survive.

Last month, Edwards ordered schools closed, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery and shuttered businesses deemed nonessential, such as gyms, hair salons and bars. Those restrictions remain in place through April.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said while the restrictions are working in New Orleans, “we are very much concerned about what’s happening around us, whether it’s parishes that have taken no action or some actions but lag, or even states around us that have taken no action.”

The shutdowns have caused spiraling unemployment. In Louisiana, 277,000 people have filed unemployment claims since March 1, according to the state, compared to 103,000 for all of 2019.

Louisiana will start handing out new federally financed benefits for those workers Monday. Unemployed workers will receive an extra $600 per week on top of a state unemployment benefit that maxes out at $247, and gig workers and contract employees will be newly eligible, under the aid package passed by Congress.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Carnival cruise ship workers who tested negative for the coronavirus disease disembarked in New Orleans and are returning to their home countries. The Carnival Valor, a New Orleans-based ship that typically carries about 3,000 guests for Caribbean cruises, didn’t have passengers when it arrived to its home port Wednesday night. Other crew members who tested positive will remain on the cruise ship, Edwards said.

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