Friday, March 20, 2020

Seriously, y'all need to wash your hands

By MINDY FACIANE | Public Information Officer, Louisiana Department of Health

Life in Louisiana has changed dramatically over the past few weeks as COVID-19, more commonly called coronavirus, entered our state. Experts are continuing to learn more about this highly contagious virus — how it spreads, how it can be treated and, eventually how to create a vaccine to protect against it.

What we know right now is COVID-19 can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth when a person infected with the disease coughs or exhales. These droplets can land on objects or surfaces, like a cellphone, and can then be transmitted from a surface when a person touches it and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also become infected if they breathe in the droplets from a person who has COVID-19. This is why it’s important to stay at least 6 feet away from an infected person — an act of social distancing.

It’s also an enormously important reason for everyone to be washing their hands properly, thoroughly and frequently. You could be exposed to the virus without even knowing it — and, thereby, unknowingly spreading it as well.

Pandemic aside, good hand washing is something we should practice regularly:
  • Before, during and after preparing food,
  • Before eating food,
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick,
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound,
  • After using the toilet,
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet,
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing,
  • After touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste,
  • After handling pet food or pet treats, and
  • After touching garbage.

Washing your hands only takes 20 seconds and helps prevent the spread of germs like the coronavirus from person to person, our communities and our state. It just takes these five simple steps from the CDC:
  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Most of the time you should choose soap and water first when it comes to cleaning your hands, but if soap and water simply aren’t available then you can turn to hand sanitizers. These handy gels can cut down on germs significantly but they don’t get rid of all kinds of germs.

When choosing a hand sanitizer, check the label to make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol. (Keep it out of reach of children, because it may cause alcohol poisoning if too much is ingested.) To use, apply to the palm of one hand and rub the gel all over the surfaces of your fingers and hands until dry.

Whether it’s good old soap and water or the standby hand sanitizer, the power to help keep coronavirus at bay is literally in your hands.

Visit the COVID-19 webpages from the Louisiana Department of Health and the CDC for more coronavirus information.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Cell phones as a safety net lifeline: What we learned by delivering text messages to 27,000 Louisianans

By DUSTIN PALMER | Senior Program Manager, Code for America

Eligible people struggle to maintain their case status for critical safety net services, often due to administrative hurdles and poor communication. Code for America piloted text message reminders to support Louisianans, which helped clients avoid costly churn. Text messages are an underrated, efficient solution for human service agencies to meet client expectations and improve case outcomes.  

Read more here.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Louisiana Department of Health gets creative to provide flu vaccinations

The Louisiana Department of Health is always ready to meet the needs of the public in the event of a health emergency, such as pandemic flu, with coordinated plans that can be put into action at short notice. Among them is a plan to provide vaccinations or antiviral drugs to people around the state.

Not only does this help keep the Department ready for a worst-case scenario, but it allows LDH to provide vaccinations to people who may not otherwise have been able to get them.

Last fall, while testing its capabilities, LDH provided 3,480 flu vaccinations to people around the state, a 164% increase from the previous year when 1,313 shots were given. Additionally, LDH was able to expand its reach from 47 sites in 2018 to 26 sites and 22 parish health units in 2019. Those sites included a sports arena, a church and a state office building.

In central Louisiana, LDH went a step further in providing an easy way for people to get their flu shots.

Inspired by a longtime staple of the fast food industry, health officials set up driveways and parking lots to allow for drive-thru clinics. Patients rolled in, rolled up their sleeves for a shot and rolled out, making the process of getting a flu shot fast and convenient. More than 1,600 flu shots were given in the region, with the Rapides Parish Health Unit giving 684 vaccinations alone.

Dr. David Holcombe, regional medical director for central Louisiana, said the demand for vaccinations was so great that he had to drive to Natchitoches to get more vaccines after his team exhausted their own supplies.

Flu vaccines are still encouraged

The most recent reports from both the CDC and the Department of Health still show widespread flu activity in Louisiana. Dr. Frank Welch, immunization medical director for the Office of Public Health, advises that it is never too late to get a flu shot.

“Flu shots are available at any parish health unit at no cost to the patient. Also, local pharmacies, clinics, doctors’ offices and community health centers still have vaccines available,” Dr. Welch said. “With reports of widespread flu activity, a flu vaccine offers you, your family, friends and co-workers the best protection from getting sick from the flu.”

There’s even more incentive to get your flu shot this year: COVID-19, commonly called coronavirus. Flu and coronavirus are similar in that both are highly contagious respiratory illnesses spread by the droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, which are then inhaled by others.

However, the flu shot does not protect against COVID-19. It’s still extremely important to get your shot, though, and here’s why. If you don’t get your flu shot and you get the flu, your weakened immune system leaves your body more likely to become ill with other respiratory illnesses — like COVID-19.

For more information on how to protect you and your family from the flu or where to find a location to receive a flu vaccination near you, visit

Friday, February 28, 2020

From gambling to healing: A personal story of recovery

By REBECCA DAVIS | Social Service Counselor, South Central Louisiana Human Services Authority

(Note: Rebecca Davis is a certified addictions counselor, substance abuse professional, certified compulsive gambling counselor and certified clinical supervisor. She is sharing her recovery story in honor of Problem Gambling Awareness Month, observed every March to promote awareness of the resources available to those experiencing problems with gambling.)

Hi, my name is Rebecca Davis, and I am a problem gambler.

I first stepped foot in a casino in 1993. Although I had dabbled in gambling prior to that, it was not of any concern. I remember that first experience in 1993 like it was yesterday.

Rebecca Davis
It was a problem from that day on.

I will also say that gambling was not my only addiction.

I was consumed with gambling. I thought about gambling daily — when was I going to gamble, where I was going to get the money to gamble and the time to gamble.

My gambling took me away from everything that was important to me.

My gambling became my priority.

While I managed, at first, to continue to be successful in my career, my personal life was in shambles. It did not take long for me to start to use the money meant for my utilities and living expenses on gambling. I was constantly juggling money and bills. I lived on edge daily but still continued to gamble. I borrowed money from everyone I knew, and I lied to make loans.

I became an expert at lying.

I was living a secret life.

From casino to cellblock

Around 1998, I began to steal money from my employer. I was caught within a few months. I was so ashamed and hopeless that I attempted suicide. When that was unsuccessful, I turned myself in to the police. I bonded out the next day.

I no longer had a job, nor any money. I felt worse than I ever had in my life. I was embarrassed, disgusted, angry with myself, hopeless, fearful and just wanted to disappear.

I returned to my home town and moved in with a friend. It took me about a month to find a job — but I never stopped gambling. As bad as I felt, I was still in the mindset that gambling was going to fix something in my life. I would go to court for my charges, leave the courthouse and go gamble.

For about a year, I was only spending my money to gamble. Then, when that was not enough, I began to steal money from my employer again. This time, it took me about a year to get caught, so needless to say, I had taken a large amount of money. I attempted suicide again.

I was arrested at a hotel when I was alone in a room out of town. I was broken, ashamed, hopeless, fearful and alone. I had hurt everyone who cared about me with my lies and deceit. I had let everyone down, including myself. I was at the bottom of my existence.

I was arrested again. My bond this time was $350,000 — so, needless to say, I could not bond out of jail. I stayed in jail for six months. My sentence was 10 years, but nine years were suspended. I was on probation for five years.

The path to recovery

My family brought me books about addiction while I was in jail. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was released from jail on a Friday, and that next Wednesday, I went to a local Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meeting. I also enrolled in a behavioral health clinic for outpatient treatment. I attended treatment for my problem gambling, alcohol and drugs. I did whatever was asked of me.

My first thought after entering treatment was that I was going to drink alcohol again. I realized soon after entering treatment that drinking would not work. I knew if I drank, I was also going to use drugs, and once I drank and used drugs, I was going to gamble. I accepted that I would not return to any of my addictions.

Those first months, and, actually, that first year was hard. For the first few months, every time I opened my mouth to talk at a GA meeting, I would cry. I kept going back, and the more I attended, the easier it was to discuss what had happened and things about my life.

I realized I was not alone. I realized there were others like me.

About a year into treatment, I started to think that I wanted to be a counselor. The counselors I had in treatment were great. They were the first individuals in my life who only wanted to see me succeed. They did not want sex, or for me to cook or clean for them. They did not want me to solve their problems — they wanted to help me solve mine. They did not want anything else. It was the first time I had experienced that. Everyone in my past always wanted someone in return for their “love and support.”

I immersed myself in recovery, attending numerous meetings per week. I asked someone to be my sponsor and I worked the steps, eventually sponsoring others myself. I have since worked the 12 steps several times. Two years into recovery, I obtained my GED and began college at the age of 47.

I have now been off the bet for 18 years. I work as a problem gambling counselor and a substance abuse counselor. My goal is to give to others what was given to me. All I want for our clients is for them to understand that there is another way to live.

I no longer have to allow my past choices to define who I am today.

I no longer have to be a victim.

I am a survivor.

(To learn the warning signs of problem gambling and to find help in Louisiana, click or tap here. Need help now? Call the Helpline at 1-877-770-STOP. It is toll-free and confidential.)

Friday, February 21, 2020

In the event of an emergency ...

By BOB JOHANNESSEN | Bureau of Community Preparedness Communications Consultant, LDH Office of Public Health

As COVID-19, a relatively new coronavirus, spreads throughout China, it has the attention of world, U.S. and local health officials, as well as around-the-clock news coverage. We recently sat down with Dr. Frank Welch, medical director for emergency preparedness at the Louisiana Department of Health, who directs and coordinates all aspects of infectious disease planning and response activities for Louisiana.

We asked Dr. Welch about the planning and response to COVID-19 at a time when Dr. Welch’s team was also responding to five concurrent outbreaks of infectious diseases: seasonal flu, hepatitis A, mumps, norovirus and chicken pox.

Is it unusual to have so many outbreaks under investigation at the same time?

Dr. Frank Welch
It’s not unusual to have outbreaks and there is no relation between the ones Louisiana is experiencing. The fact they are all occurring at once is coincidental. Interestingly, though, several of the outbreaks we are seeing today have unique features.

Hepatitis A, for example, is a disease that that we usually only see a few cases of a year, typically confined to specific people or to food. It is uncommon that we have been seeing so many cases for more than a year, reaching epidemic proportions in a very specific population. For context, over the past 10 years, an average of nine cases are reported each year. Today’s ongoing outbreak is almost 800 cases.

With mumps, the vaccine is about 90% effective, so we typically see only a case or two a year. In the past, outbreaks have been rare, but today, we are regularly seeing mumps outbreaks on college campuses.

Norovirus behaves like other new and unique outbreaks like SARS and N1H1 (swine flu). For these outbreaks, anytime there are a lot of people in close spaces, and someone is sick, an infectious disease can spread pretty quickly.

From a preparedness standpoint, can the Department devote, or have enough resources to adequately address all of these outbreaks at one time?

Yes, and no.

Yes, we have been preparing for about 20 years to be ready to respond to many hazards and emergencies, not just for infectious diseases. Over this time, we have built a strong emergency response infrastructure. This means that when it comes to a new disease such as COVID-19, we are not starting from scratch. Instead, we only have to build upon the existing structure for the new, specific issue.

No, because building upon the existing structure can sometimes be challenging because it requires human resources and additional funding. There is a limit to what we can do ourselves, but the federal government has always been there to assist. In the past, the feds have recognized there is additional work and added costs, and they have provided us and other states more money for the response.

How do you prioritize resources?

Within the Office of Public Health, we have a continuity of operations plan that lets us identify essential, critical operations that we need to do, and the responsibilities that we can put off or place to the side for a while. For this planning, we follow the federal guidelines for continuity of operations. This is important to our ability to respond to an emergency, recover afterwards and then catch up when the crisis is over.

Of the recent outbreaks, which one should we be most worried about? And, why?

We should be most worried about the flu. This really is the severe, contagious illness that needs to be taken seriously. Millions of people get the flu every year — about 20% of the population.

According to the CDC, the flu has already caused more than 2,000 deaths this season, and Louisiana has seen heightened flu activity every week since flu season started last fall. But, the flu is vaccine-preventable, vaccine-mutable. From my perspective, we need to focus on the diseases that are most serious, while still having the ability to respond to other concerns like COVID-19.

How dangerous is COVID-19 compared to the flu or to other viruses?

We aren’t yet sure how quickly COVID-19 can spread. However, it appears that for every person who becomes infected, they can spread it to three other people. For comparison, every person who gets norovirus can spread it to 9 to 10 other people. By this measure, norovirus spreads three times as much as COVID-19.

My prediction for COVID-19 is that it will mutate itself out, or fail to adapt to new environments, like SARS, an earlier coronavirus. Or, it might eventually slowly spread throughout the global populations. The strategy of health officials is to slow the time it takes for the virus to enter the U.S., allowing time for effective treatments and vaccines — in other words, allowing time for more tools to be developed to fight it.

As an example, H1N1 started in the U.S., migrated globally, but is now part of the common flu.

How worried should the general public be about COVID-19?

If and when the virus gets to the U.S., the best strategy to keep from getting sick are the same strategies to prevent getting the flu: wash your hands frequently and keep your distance from others.

Given how rapidly norovirus recently spread through Southwest Louisiana, can we expect the same from COVID-19?

This depends on several things. First, the ability of the virus to spread. Remember, it appears that one-person sick with COVID-19 can spread it to three other people.

The second thing is the sick person must be in close proximity to someone else.

In China, the city of Wuhan is small in area but has 11 million people. There are a lot of people living and working very close to one another. This has allowed the virus to spread rapidly. You should also remember that it started during the Chinese New Year when there were large crowds of people. This is probably why it spread so quickly.

It is different in Louisiana where we are not nearly so crowded. We have lots of wide open spaces, and to find a crowd of people, you have to actively seek out the crowd. This makes it unlikely that we’d see the same rate of transmission in Louisiana as we’re seeing in Wuhan.

If you could advise the general public to do only one thing to protect themselves, what would that be?

As I said earlier, you need to keep your hands clean and keep your distance from others. Infectious diseases such as the flu, norovirus and COVID-19 all spread person to person. So, the best things to do are to stay away from sick people, cover your mouth, wash your hands and stay home if you are sick. This is the best prevention for any infectious disease. You should also call your doctor if you are sick and follow your doctor’s advice.

Why do some people seem to worry about COVID-19 more than they worry about the flu?

Anything that is new and different captures media attention, as well as the attention of the CDC and the world health organizations. All of this attention elevates the idea that this is something new and different and more dangerous.

In fact, a recent article in the New York Times said this illustrates an unconscious bias in how humans think about risk … we are conditioned to focus heavily on new threats, looking for any cause for alarm. We might obsess over the scariest reports and worst-case scenarios, making the danger seem bigger than it actually is. Where COVID-19 is new and different, the flu, in comparison, is seen as old and somewhat boring. It doesn’t capture the 24-hour news cycle, and, therefore, it is not as glamorous.

Anything that is seen as new and different gets an elevated public profile. It might not be all that serious, it’s just different.