Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Q&A with the RMDs: Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh

To respond to the daily public health needs of Louisianans, the Louisiana Department of Health has divided the state into nine regions. Each of these regions is led by a regional medical director (RMD) or administrator who oversees the parish health units in their region. Regional medical directors are in constant contact with state health leadership and local leaders to help guide Louisianans through the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among key demographics.

In this Q&A blog series, these public health leaders will be answering the same questions, and together they will paint a statewide perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic and their communities’ response. Today, you’ll hear from Region 5’s Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh, Regional Medical Director for the parishes of Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis.

I receive lots of questions regarding testing. Who should be tested? When should they be tested? What type of test should be used? What does the result of that test mean? The challenge here is that this area has rapidly changed since the onset of the pandemic, with new test types becoming available and new sets of people being tested as supply changed. In addition to guidance changes, people receive mixed messages. I usually recommend that people consult with their individual doctors to determine what test is appropriate based on the situation, and always consult CDC or LDH guidance because it is ever changing. However, in general, PCR testing (the nasal swab) is what tells us if you have the virus RIGHT NOW. PCR testing takes a few days to become positive, so if you were exposed yesterday and get a PCR test today, that’s not very useful. Antibody testing (fingerpick or blood draw) tells us if you have been exposed to the virus in the past — but it can take weeks after exposure to turn positive. We also don’t know that this means you are immune, so these test types are more for curiosity than for serving a medical purpose right now. They should definitely not be used to justify return to the workplace.

I think many people do understand the importance and want to follow guidance. I see people being more understanding during times when the number of cases locally is high, and I have seen increases in mask wearing and social distancing since our cases started to increase. There are also those people who choose not to follow guidance for a variety of reasons. My advice is to follow guidance from reputable sources — many of the reasons cited for not wearing masks come from social media and are not backed by science. Just as with anything else, people should be really cautious in receiving advice from social media.

I have seen challenges in social distancing and mask wearing. It’s hot outside. Masks are uncomfortable. People are tired of COVID. These are all real challenges. I do think that people in Southwest Louisiana care deeply about our community and want to do the right thing. I think we can continue to improve here, and I am seeing some improvement since our cases started to rise.

One of our biggest challenges is our culture. In Southwest Louisiana, we are a small town at heart. Friends and family, gatherings, food, parties and festivals are part of our core sense of identity. We are proud of our roots and social culture, and this makes it difficult to properly socially distance. It’s hard to change community norms when gatherings are such an important part of our lives. The longer COVID is with us, the more difficult this has become. I encourage us to find new and safer ways to gather and celebrate. I don’t think social distancing and celebrating are incompatible, but I do think we will need to find different ways to do both simultaneously in the near term.

It strikes me that this virus has gotten so personal. It’s hard to even go into the grocery store without seeing people I know who have been impacted by COVID in some way. Everyone has had a different challenge, but COVID has challenged everyone in some different way. There isn’t a person I know untouched by the far-reaching effects of this virus. People are handling it as best they can and trying to stay positive, and are understanding that we have a long way to go before recovery.

One situation that really made me smile is the medical community coming together and stepping up to the plate to organize a drive-thru testing site. It took coordination and cooperation from several local hospitals, the Office of Public Health, parish leadership, local labs, the Louisiana Army National Guard, EMS and many others. I am proud that we could all work together as a community to accomplish standing up that site with limited supplies, limited PPE and limited time. It was a true testament to the power of strength in numbers and working together.

Stay strong, SWLA! I know it’s hard, but I have confidence that we will get through this.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Q&A with the RMDs: Dr. William 'Chip' Riggins

To respond to the daily public health needs of Louisianans, the Louisiana Department of Health has divided the state into nine regions. Each of these regions is led by a regional medical director (RMD) or administrator who oversees the parish health units in their region. Regional medical directors are in constant contact with state health leadership and local leaders to help guide Louisianans through the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among key demographics.

In this Q&A blog series, these public health leaders will be answering the same questions, and together they will paint a statewide perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic and their communities’ response. Today, you’ll hear from Region 3’s Dr. William “Chip” Riggins, Regional Medical Director for the parishes of Assumption, Lafourche, St. Charles, St. James, St. John, St. Mary and Terrebonne.

I get questions about the number of cases in the community from many folks I meet. I always refer them to the OPH Dashboard but they are most interested in the experience in their specific neighborhood. I remind them about the need for confidentiality and how easily that can be broken when we get too far down and the numbers are low. For most purposes, I think parish-level data is really sufficient to make decisions around our daily lives. If it’s in the parish, it’s not very far away — especially since the majority of our region’s land mass is swamp or marsh.

I think folks are aware of the recommendation but they may be confused by the differences, even when subtle, in the messages they are hearing and the examples they are seeing. Those who have personally had COVID-19 disease or know someone who has been ill or died are the most clear on the importance of social distancing and masks.* That is always the case.

Old habits are hard to break, and I see a lot of effort to create safe spaces with signage and markings on the floor, with sanitizer, wipes and masks, sometimes being observed and sometimes being overlooked. The trend I’m seeing is that while everyone struggled to safely be open or re-open, the larger facilities and chains have come the farthest in terms of their adjustments — not surprising. The smaller businesses and unaffiliated organizations like churches have wider variation in their plans and processes but I have seen some really innovative things in smaller spaces, too.

I think one of the biggest challenges is overcoming the expectation, that as a community, we have to be either fully open or fully closed. I see our new normal as a balancing act between opening up until the data shows the disease is spreading again and then slowing down or even backing up in our reopening if necessary until the disease slows. Fighting COVID-19 reminds me of riding a unicycle: it requires a lot of minor adjustments, and that means a lot of minor changes to our recommendations. It’s not as easy to follow constantly changing recommendations, but that’s what’s going to help us flatten the curve over the months ahead until we get a vaccine. I am afraid that if we all don’t commit to constantly watching our community’s data, and making the minor changes and respecting the limitations in each of the phases of reopening, we could see much larger swings in disease rates again — and no one wants to see that.

We are proud of our friendliness as a community here down the bayou, and there is a reluctance to correct others or address issues like social distancing and masks with each other. I think we maybe we are going to have to all try to thank the folks we see doing it well and use our friendliness to emphasize the positive.

On one of our early regional ESF-8 calls, the nursing home rep reported that many residents were distressed (and depressed) by not being able to leave their rooms and even walk a little. Within a week or so our social services representative had linked seamstresses in the region to the mission, and each and every nursing home resident in this region was provided a cloth mask of their own — amazing!

Our region has the fewest hospital and ICU beds and ventilators per capita in Louisiana. That means that our region is more vulnerable to having this virus overwhelm our emergency rooms, hospitals and healthcare system. Flattening the curve in our region truly means saving more lives than just the victims of COVID-19 — it means having the capacity to help those with other disease and injuries and saving those lives as well.

*According to the LSU Manship School Survey of Public Reactions to Coronavirus in Louisiana (June 2020), those with personal experience are the most risk adverse/compliant with social distancing and wearing masks.

Monday, June 22, 2020

You can have a great summer and still be COVID-safe

(With Memorial Day serving as the unofficial first day of summer, and with the official first day this week, people will be tempted to go to the pool, the beach or take a vacation. Recognizing that we are still experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked Dr. Joe Kanter, assistant state health officer, if traditional summertime activities can happen during a pandemic and, if so, are there any special precautions that individuals and families should take?)

Is it safe to go swimming?
We don’t believe the virus can spread very easily through the water, whether it is salt water or chlorinated, swimming pool water. The virus isn’t going to move across the water from one person to another. The risk, however, is getting too close to others while in the pool. That’s the same risk as if you are not in a pool; COVID-19 spreads easiest by breathing, speaking, coughing, singing or laughing when in close proximity to another person, whether in or out of the pool.

What about going to summer camps or large get-togethers like family barbecues?
Camping, fishing and barbecuing are all low-risk activities. Families should get outside. To be safe, identify who is in your close group — know who they are because that contributes to your exposure risk. And, if there are members of your close group who are at a higher risk … such as over 65 or who have underlying health conditions. What is riskier, are the things you have to do to get to the campsite or the fishing site. This includes stopping at a gas station or going shopping for supplies. This is where you really need to take the precautions: wear masks, use hand sanitizer and keep your distance from others.

Are there any activities that people should avoid altogether?
You should avoid anything that involves a crowd. When you are real close to others, your or someone else’s respiratory droplets can spread the virus. The same distance requirements apply whether indoors or outside.

What other considerations are important?
You should always try to decrease your risks. If the restaurant offers outdoor seating, use that option because eating outside is safer. You should also judge the establishment to get a sense as to how seriously they take these precautions. If you see a whole bunch of people crowding around one another, that’s not a place you want to go to. It’s not worth the risk.

What responsibilities do business owners have?
We’re looking to businesses to take the necessary steps to protect their employees and their patrons. As customers, we should vote with our feet and go to places where they exhibit concern for safety. That’s good business practices right now.

What about hotels and vacation homes? What precautions should we take when renting a room or another place to stay?
Make sure that wherever go stay, that the business — Airbnb, hotel and condo operator — should thoroughly clean and wipe down between guests. This includes cleaning hard surfaces, door handles, bathrooms.

And, we should do that wiping down ourselves, as well, with a clean, sanitized cloth rag. The biggest risk is when you are in the lobby when you are checking in or leaving. Be sure to keep distance between yourself and others. You want to make sure you are wearing your mask and that other people are wearing their masks. That will increase your safety.

Is there anything that we should keep in mind while traveling this summer?
When traveling by plane, use your mask on the flight and while in the airport. This will go a long way to prevent the spread of the virus. People should be aware of all hard surfaces they touch. Limit the amount that you touch countertops, door handles, handrails, escalator rails. Use hand sanitizer after touching these surfaces.

Also, do what you can to avoid lines. If you see a line forming, just hang back and wait until that line gets shorter. Be cognizant of the people around you. And, if possible, avoid situations where you would be within 6 feet of others.

Is it possible to have a safe summer vacation?
Yes, it is possible to be safe on a summer vacation. But, families may want to reevaluate where they want to go. Today, driving a few hours is a more appealing option than getting on a plane because it’s a lot simpler.

And, you should watch the news to see what’s going on in the locations that you are considering as a destination. If I was planning a trip to a place where they are experiencing a growing outbreak, I would reconsider and go someplace else. Families should take this all into consideration.

Any final thoughts on reducing your risk this summer?
Anytime you travel, there are risks. There are things families can do to mitigate their risks because you can’t eliminate all risks. You have to look at your family situation, take into account who is in your family — do you have older family members or do some members have underlying conditions — take those into account and make a responsible decision.

For information on COVID-19 from the Louisiana Department of Health, click here.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Together, we will adjust to the ‘new normal’

By DR. COURTNEY N. PHILLIPS | Louisiana Department of Health Secretary

These past few months have seen us all adjusting to a steadily evolving “new normal.”

Our state all but shut down during March and April as most Louisianans took to heart Governor John Bel Edwards’ Stay at Home order. I know it has been challenging to not be able to hug our friends or our high-risk loved ones through all of this, to homeschool, to work from home, to continue to work at physical locations where the rules of operation continue to change, or to be unexpectedly out of work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Courtney N. Phillips,
While keeping us apart physically, in many ways the pandemic has brought us closer through frequent phone calls, texts and video chats with our loved ones. We have looked out for one another through acts of kindness, such as delivering groceries to a vulnerable neighbor who must stay indoors for their own safety. Let’s continue to nurture that spirit of community and togetherness as our state gradually reopens and we cautiously venture into the world once more.

I thank everyone who took the Stay at Home order seriously, flattening the curve and stemming the spread of the virus. We grieve those lost to COVID-19 — our neighbors, our loved ones, our colleagues — but we celebrate the many lives saved thanks to your cooperation.

The road ahead

Louisiana began a gradual, safety-driven reopening in mid-May under Governor Edwards’ leadership. This phased reopening, called Roadmap to a Resilient Louisiana, lifts some restrictions and allows businesses to resume operations based on COVID-like illness, case growth and hospitalizations. These declines did not just happen on their own. We together made this happen — by wearing masks, staying 6 feet away from others, minimizing how often we go out, and washing our hands and not touching our faces. This Louisiana spirit is what keeps us moving forward.

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On June 5, we entered Phase 2 of Roadmap to a Resilient Louisiana, but what does this mean? For many Louisianans, it means the sudden opportunity to dine out, shop, get a tattoo or massage, or get married with more than 10 people present. It also means many people may believe we can relax.

With the reopening of more businesses and increased capacity at already-reopened businesses, we may advise against it but people will begin to venture out in greater numbers. However, just because businesses and leisure activities are open does not mean there isn’t risk involved.

Businesses will continue to open gradually, but not the same as we’re used to. They will have to operate under strict requirements including limited occupancy with social distancing, masks for public-facing employees and increased sanitization. We are also strongly recommending good practices including offering temperature checks before a person can enter, posting the symptoms of COVID-19 outside with a request that symptomatic individuals not enter and posting signs thanking guests for wearing a mask.

We have control over our own preventive actions, such as wearing a mask and putting 6 feet of space between ourselves and others, but we cannot control the actions of others. Before making plans to go out, we encourage everyone to reduce the risk of exposure by considering the factors of Time - Space - People - Place, an assessment of risk developed by Ohio State University epidemiologist Dr. William Miller. To put it simply:
  • Time: The more time you spend with other people, the greater the risk.
  • Space: The closer you are to other people, the greater the risk.
  • People: The more people you interact with, the greater the risk.
  • Place: Indoor activities are riskier than outdoor activities.
Here are some tips for considering Time - Space - People - Place:

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During Phase 2, we encourage high-risk individuals to continue staying at home for their safety. This includes individuals ages 65 and older, long-term care facility residents, and vulnerable individuals such as those who are immunocompromised or have one or more of the following health conditions with poor control:
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Heart disease
Remember that everyone is still safer at home. With the easing of restrictions comes the possibility we could see what other countries and states are seeing: a spike in COVID-19 case growth. We do not want to slide backward, so we must all do our part to continue moving forward. This includes contact tracing, testing and mitigation measures such as those below, but it takes all of us doing our part to prevent a new spike in cases.

Defending against COVID-19

As we continue to adjust to the new normal and avoid a new wave of infections, it’s vitally important that we all continue to wear masks and stay 6 feet away from others when in public.

Face masks or face coverings should be worn anytime when you are near others who are not in your immediate household. The only exceptions are children under the age of 2 and people with severe breathing issues. I wear my mask every day whether I’m at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP), LDH headquarters or the Capitol — and I am thankful to see others doing the same. I wear my mask to protect you, and you should wear your mask to protect me. It’s being a good neighbor to everyone around you.

I know that it can feel strange to breathe and even talk while wearing a mask but it is for all of our health and safety. I am confident we can all get comfortable in our masks and make wearing them as normal as getting dressed in the morning.

Along with masking up, social distancing is one of our most reliable tactics to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Social distancing means maintaining a physical space of 6 feet between yourself and people from outside your household, something which does not come easily to Louisianans.

As a daughter of Louisiana, born and raised in Plaquemines Parish, I know firsthand that the need to be friendly and to congregate is instilled in us at birth. We thrive in one another’s company, which we can enjoy so long as we do so safely — 6 feet apart and masked. Yes, it is different from the social gatherings we are used to, but so long as we are together we will shoulder through these challenging times.

Along with masking up and observing social distancing, to help keep everyone healthy:
  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are unavailable.
  • Clean high-touch surfaces and high-traffic areas frequently.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Sneeze and cough into a tissue, elbow or mask.
  • Stay home if you are sick, especially if you have a fever greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Isolate yourself from others in the household and contact your medical provider. Staying home when sick saves lives.
This is our new normal until we have a vaccine. Take care of yourselves and your neighbors, and once again the bonds of Louisiana spirit will see us through.

We frequently update our website with helpful information to help keep you safe during this pandemic. Visit http://ldh.la.gov/Coronavirus.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

How one hard-hit state is rallying to support those with addiction amidst COVID-19


No area has been spared in the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the most vulnerable populations is those with addiction. But if we’ve seen anything, it’s that states and addiction treatment providers have been incredibly resourceful in continuing to serve their communities while still taking appropriate measures to protect against the spread of the virus. One state that has been particularly hard-hit by the virus, Louisiana, rapidly jumped into problem-solving mode to ensure vital services continue to be provided to those with addiction.

Read more here.

Friday, April 24, 2020

COVID-19 brings with it an ocean of emotions

By the Office of Behavioral Health Prevention Team

During these uncertain times, heightened stress levels and increased anxiety are typical for some. COVID-19 has forced everyone to adjust to a “new normal,” making us change the way we interact with loved ones, friends and even co-workers, through physical distancing, staying at home and even self-isolation.

We’re all in this “new normal” boat together. When you feel like you’re adrift in self-isolation and physical distancing, the Louisiana Office of Behavioral Health is here to help you stay afloat. Here are a few things to pack away in your mental health toolkit.

I’m feeling overwhelmed with stress, uncertainty, fear or anxiety. Is there someone I can talk to?

These are all normal responses to an uncertain or threatening event. You can call the Keep Calm through COVID line at 1-866-310-7977. This phone line is available 24/7 and all calls are confidential. The Keep Calm through COVID line connects you to trained, compassionate counselors who can offer support and who can direct you to mental health and substance use counseling services.

Stress is inevitable, but I really need a way to let go of some steam. Will drinking alcohol help to ease some of this stress and anxiety? 

Alcohol is addictive and can be toxic. In higher amounts or when consumed with certain medications or by those with certain health conditions, relying on alcohol to relieve stress is not advised. Instead, use other stress reduction techniques and practices like exercise (as approved by your doctor), getting enough sleep (about eight hours a night for most adults), and relaxation techniques like meditation/mindfulness and structure-breathing exercises, listening to calming music, reading, etc.

I am in recovery, but this event is difficult to deal with. During this COVID-19 event, what are some ways I can stay above the influence? 

Especially during times such as these, experiencing high stress levels and increasing anxiety is common, and maintaining sobriety can be challenging. Here are some helpful tools you can use to help you cope and maintain your sobriety while practicing the recommended physical distancing: 

Friday, April 10, 2020

Public health workers deserve our thanks

By DR. ALEX BILLIOUX | Assistant Secretary, LDH Office of Public Health

Public health is at the forefront of global attention as the new coronavirus strains healthcare systems around the world. That makes it more appropriate than ever to think about — and thank — our public health workers during National Public Health Week, observed this year April 6-12. Held every April, National Public Health Week honors the countless public health workers who strive daily to help us live happier, healthier and longer lives.

From sanitarians ensuring our food is safe to eat, to the nurses and doctors on the front lines, and from volunteers staffing overflow makeshift hospitals to the highest rungs of government, a complex, interwoven health system is at work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week responding to the COVID-19 crisis here in Louisiana. Our healthcare system at times has been pushed to its limits, thereby asking our public health workers to also push themselves to their limits and then some. It’s not easy. It takes dedication, courage, compassion, adaptability, faith and nerves of steel.

The Louisiana Department of Health’s Office of Public Health has 1,446 team members who work throughout the state to ensure the health and safety of all of our state’s residents and guests. Louisianans are lifting up our public health workers as heroes, but at the same time, we mustn’t lose sight of this one important thing: they’re people just like you and me.

They may be feeling anxious, or sad, or fearful, or angry, or other emotions that they may be locking away because they have work to do. For public health workers, it may feel like there’s no time for emotion when they’re racing the clock against a virus that has already claimed more than 755 lives in our state alone.

Our public health workers are stepping out there every day of this pandemic and putting themselves in harm’s way, potentially exposing themselves to the coronavirus. They have a part to play in tracking the spread of the virus, running samples at our state lab around the clock, and working with local emergency leaders to make sure communities across Louisiana are as prepared as possible to respond to this pandemic. It’s a time of high stress, high emotion and little rest.

Yes, public health workers are heroes, but they’re people too. Thank you to all of our public health workers for all that you do — not only during this pandemic, but every day. We see you and we appreciate you.

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 ldh.la.gov/FightTheFlu.

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. 

Friday, February 14, 2020

Coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, COVID-19: Separating fact from fiction

(NOTE: Some of the information below may have become outdated since this post's publication on February 14, 2020. For the most current information, visit the COVID-19 webpages from the Louisiana Department of Health and the CDC.)

By DR. ALEX BILLIOUX | Assistant Secretary, LDH Office of Public Health

In its short lifetime, the disease most recently spreading fear across the globe has gone through several names: novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV and now, finally and officially, COVID-19. By now, you’ve heard all about it online, in the newspapers and on television. With so many sources of information, it can be easy for falsehoods to spread like wildfire and be taken for the gospel truth. Before looking at why some of these falsehoods are wrong, let’s get educated about this disease.

About COVID-19

Source: CDC's Public Health Image Library
COVID-19, or coronavirus, is a virus that causes respiratory illness in people and can spread from person to person. It was first identified in Wuhan, China, where an outbreak of pneumonia-like illness of an unknown cause began in December 2019. The coronavirus name refers to the crown-like spikes on its surface, and “corona” means “halo” or “crown” in Latin.

The virus has been spreading from person to person in China and, through travelers, limited spread in some countries outside China, including the United States. As of February 13, the U.S. has just 15 cases of COVID-19 and the threat to the general public remains very low.

COVID-10 is similar to flu in that it is most often spread from person to person within 6 feet, mainly through the respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of nearby people who then inhale the virus into their lungs.

Reported illnesses among people who are confirmed to be infected have ranged from little to no symptoms, to severe illness and death. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath/difficulty breathing. These symptoms may appear within as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure.

Now that the basics are covered, let’s stamp out some misinformation.

Myth busters

MYTH: Coronaviruses are new.
REALITY: COVID-19, which is currently circulating, is a new strain derived from an ancient family of coronaviruses that were first identified back in the 1960s. Think of it as a new branch suddenly growing on a very old tree. The tree has been there for years and years, but that new branch only sprouted recently.

MYTH: COVID-19 is currently the top public health threat in Louisiana.
REALITY: There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Louisiana. You are far more likely to get the flu than COVID-19. Louisiana’s flu season began way back in August, hitting particularly hard, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. We are still seeing widespread flu activity across the state and are 6.7% above the national baseline.

Help prevent respiratory viruses like flu and COVID-19 with these simple everyday actions:
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol in addition to washing with soap and water.

One more preventive measure: Get your flu shot. It doesn’t protect against COVID-19 but it’s still really important to get one, and here’s why: If you didn’t get a flu shot and then you got the flu, which is a respiratory illness, your body would be more vulnerable to other respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19. So, get that flu shot. They’re available at no cost at any parish health unit. Local pharmacies, clinics, doctors’ offices and federally qualified (community) health centers also have flu shots available. To find a flu shot provider near you or for more flu information, click here.

MYTH: Ordering or buying products shipped from China will make a person sick.
REALITY: It’s totally safe to receive packages from China because coronaviruses such as COVID-19 do not survive long on objects, including letters and packages. This also means food and clothing cannot spread COVID-19.

MYTH: Pets can spread COVID-19.
REALITY: There’s no evidence that pets can be infected with COVID-19. However, keep in mind that you should always wash your hands with soap and water after having contact with pets. Hand washing will protect you against E. coli and salmonella, which can be passed from pets to humans.

MYTH: Drinking Corona beer will cure COVID-19.
REALITY: Nope. Just, nope. Having one or two might help you relax, but always drink safely and in moderation.

The bottom line

As a public health official, a doctor, a husband and a father, I understand the worries out there around COVID-19. Just remember these three things:
  • The threat to Louisiana is very low.
  • Practice everyday actions like hand washing.
  • Get your flu shot.

And, should COVID-19 show up in Louisiana, the Office of Public Health in coordination with the Governor’s Office has planned extensively in advance. We’re ready to spring into immediate action, dedicated to keeping you safe and healthy.