Two errors stand out in particular, although in retrospect avoiding one would have demanded expert crystal ball-reading skills even as it fed into the other. That was failure of attenuation, if not cancellation, of Carnival parading and celebrations. The first U.S. case cropped up in Washington on Jan. 19, and when Carnival started in earnest on Feb. 14 the country as a whole had just a baker’s dozen of cases, a number that barely rose by Carnival’s close on Feb. 25.
Edwards engaged in some minor finger-pointing in this regard when queried about his inaction. “There was never any hint from anyone to me … that there should be any consideration to downsizing or canceling Mardi Gras,” he told a national television audience. On Mar. 11, after Louisiana’s first case popped up Mar. 9, he issued the first of a series of proclamations that increasingly have confined citizens and closed businesses.
In that respect, he actually trailed Democrat New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The New Orleans area has become one of the two epicenters of the virus, along with the New York City area, with Orleans Parish having the third-highest infection rate – one out of every 112 residents – of any place in the country and leads the nation among non-rural counties with 379 deaths per million residents. She issued her stay-at-home order days before he did, but also didn’t act on Carnival.
She more vigorously pointed fingers, at the federal government. Expounding a theory that her job leading New Orleans requires playing follow-the-leader, she told a national television audience that there were “no red flags given, with the federal government being embedded in our unified command, preparing and planning for Mardi Gras, they were engaging the C[enters for ]D[isease ]C[ontrol] in time for preparation, no red flags for Mardi Gras day and leading up to it.”
But you don’t have to be a weatherman to know, or wait for one to tell you, which way the wind blows. By the start of February Republican Pres. Donald Trump already had restricted travel to China and the CDC had issued a mild warning about the virus. As well, news reports had chronicled a burgeoning increase in Italy. And three days before Carnival’s end, one of Europe’s largest in Venice was cancelled by its mayor. New Orleans attracts tens of thousands of international visitors for Mardi Gras, and Italians comprise two percent of visitors year-round. The same proportion of domestic visitors comes from Washington, which by the middle of Carnival had hundreds of suspected cases.
(And, Morning Joe? Ideological fellow traveler of Edwards and Cantrell MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough alleged he and others were telling the world about the severity of the disease to come in the middle of January. Well, don’t blame Edwards or Cantrell for not paying attention; turns out Scarborough and other media outlets spent just about all his time then talking about a specious impeachment of Trump and next to none about the virus.)
Clearly, Carnival had something to do with Louisiana’s high incidence and per capita death rate. As of today, the cockpit of Carnival in the state – Orleans, Jefferson, and the five parishes surrounding them – have 69 percent of the state’s cases and 72 percent of deaths, and removing these from the state infection rate (or included if the same) would see it plunge by 60 percent.
It’s hard to fault Edwards or Cantrell for their slow reaction during Carnival, because even as some signs were there, few elected officials anywhere heeded them quickly enough to limit gatherings. As much as they pose as “leaders,” neither have shown any inclination in their political careers to charge ahead unless they had overwhelming assurance that either a defeat would cost them nothing politically or the odds of gaining political capital were high.
But at the very least Edwards particularly failed in realizing how bad Carnival could make matters become. Crucial days went by after its conclusion with him AWOL on the issue, and his first response was at best tepid. Only at beginning of March did he begin to mobilize state government resources to confront the looming problem with a task force meeting on the issue.
If anything, by Carnival’s end given news reports elsewhere Edwards should have understood that parading and celebrating had created a ticking time bomb and the state immediately needed to get out in front of it. That’s what happened in Washington, which ramped up testing capacity even before that first case appeared. As a result, when the onslaught began the state launched testing and tracing rapidly, emulating to an extent the proactive strategy followed by South Korea.
Koreans avoided mass closures of government and commercial functions and gathering limits in most places by widespread testing and immediate quarantining or treatment, and within three weeks after the disease flared from its low start South Korea flattened the growth rate to almost zero. Washington didn’t carry out the strategy as aggressively, but despite being the first state hit it now has a daily case growth rate that over the past week averaged 11 percent and a death rate growing at only 7 percent on average. By contrast, even though Louisiana’s first case manifested 54 days later, with over the past week a daily average case growth rate of 30 percent and growth in deaths averaging 24 percent, it now has surpassed Washington, a state with 58 percent more people, by 66 percent in cases and 41 percent in deaths.
Edwards was caught flatfooted and his reactive approach of mass closures and gathering limitations only can do so much. Rather than closing the barn door after the horse had escaped, he should have been sensitized by Carnival’s perfect storm for viral inflation, and no later than its end he should have set in motion an expansion of testing capacity of the state lab and convened the state’s partnership hospitals – which capture billions of dollars of state tax revenues for their Medicaid services rendered – to do the same. Then the state could have nipped it in the bud when the crucial time came in the middle third of March.
Instead, he worried more about a task force for climate change than one for the virus with state officials saying they saw little immediate threat from the virus. Meanwhile, the overwhelmed state lab ran only a few hundred tests in the first week after the first positive result and for more than a week later hospitals were still shipping tests out-of-state for analysis.
Multiple factors account for Louisiana at present having the second-highest statewide incidence and mortality – and, at 206 per million the seven-parish New Orleans area having the highest mortality rate in the country, exceeding the New York metropolitan area (Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey counties across Staten Island Sound, and the two counties immediately north of the city up the Hudson River) by an astonishing 56 percent. One critical misstep came as a consequence of Edwards’ lack of prescience and leadership, which needs to change for the state to ameliorate the fix it is in.