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Attorney Jeff Landry speaks at Monday's press conference in Baton Rouge

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Governor sees signs of hope in COVID-19 numbers

Is Louisiana seeing a slowdown in the grim march of COVID-19 across the state?

Gov. John Bel Edwards says it's too soon to know for certain, but the latest numbers may contain signs that the COVID-19 curve is flattening, offering hope that Louisiana can avoid a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases that could overwhelm hospitals.

"The message for today, and I don't want anyone to mistake this," Edwards said in a Monday press conference, "is that even if we are starting to see improvements in the numbers, and we're starting to develop a trend that's very helpful, we have to maintain the mitigation measures, the stay at home order, the social distancing and the hygiene practices we've been talking about literally for weeks now."

Also at Monday's press conference, Attorney General Jeff Landry announced another donation of medication that will help Louisiana take part in clinical trials to see if the drugs can ease COVID-19 symptoms and protect the finite supply of ventilators.

On the surface, Monday's noon report from the Office of Public Health didn't offer much good news.

Statewide, 1,857 new positive tests since noon Sunday brought the total to 14,867.

Another trend has emerged: About 70% of the Louisiana COVID-19 deaths have been among African Americans.

"That deserves more attention," Edwards said, "and we'll have to see."

And hypertension has overtaken diabetes as the underlying health conditions that make COVID-19 infection more serious.

But the number of new hospitalizations grew by only six Monday to 1,809. The number of patients on ventilators rose by only two to 563.

The number of deaths rose by 35 to 512 -- tragic, but a smaller number than in recent days.

Overall, hospital admissions and deaths related to COVID-19 are the two numbers most important to the state's modeling, Edwards said.

"While all of the numbers are still high ...," Edwards said, "we're starting to see real signs the mitigation measures that we put in place weeks ago are starting to bear results."

Testing has become more widespread in Louisiana, growing to about 70,000 and making Louisiana the state with the nation's second-highest per capita testing rate. As more tests are performed, a clearer picture of COVID-19's spread emerges, Edwards said.

"We're not such a big outlier anymore," the governor said.

He also praised doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists in Louisiana for effective treatment that is reducing the time patients spend in hospitals, the percentage of patients who need ventilators and the time patients spend on ventilators.

But Edwards said the state may have to wait a few days to see if any new trend is real. About 65,000 of Louisiana's COVID-19 tests have been performed by commercial labs, which have a testing backlog and which tend to report lower numbers on weekends.

The new medication donation comes from the pharmaceutical company Teva, which is giving Louisiana 75,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine, currently approved for use as an anti-malarial, and 8,000 "Z Packs" containing the antibiotic Zithromax, with which hydroxychloroquine is prescribed by doctors treating patients for COVID-19.

Teva made the donation even though it's among the defendants in the lawsuit filed by state and local governments, including Louisiana, alleging that drug companies marketed opioids in a manner that led to a growing addiction problem for people and the governments.

Landry had announced a donation of another 400,000 doses of hydroxychloroquine from the drug company Ampio last week.

Hydroxycholoraquin has been at the center of a controversy recently. President Donald Trump has often spoken publicly about the medication's potential as a COVID-19 treatment. Others, including infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, have said it's too early to describe hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment..

Landry sidestepped that debate.

"This drug doesn't represent a silver bullet or a magic wand," he said.

But he said Louisiana doctors have already been prescribing hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 symptoms. The LSU Medical School is participating in clinical trials to determine whether it's effective as a treatment and to prevent symptoms among those who have tested positive. Easing the COVID-19 respiratory symptoms might keep people off ventilators, he said.

"We're not here to testify to the efficacy of this drug as it relates to to COVID-19," Edwards said. "But we know we have trials going on, and we know doctors want to use it. So making it available is easily the right thing."

Also Monday, Edwards said the 200 ventilators promised by Trump from the national strategic stockpile have arrived and will be distributed soon. The governor also thanked Vice President Mike Pence for offering to extend the operation of drive-up testing centers in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish past April 10. Edwards said the centers will be extended.

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