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Civil discourse missing in Louisiana COVID debates

Louisiana has repeatedly broken records this month in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19

People shouted, heckled and jeered. They trash-talked Louisiana’s leading public health expert. And they mocked the masks required at indoor locations statewide by wearing them on their heads or under their chins and covering them with the words “child abuse.”

Two public hearings about Louisiana’s COVID-19 outbreak, the statewide mask mandate and the coronavirus vaccines demonstrated in the most chaotic of terms how difficult it remains to change minds about the effectiveness of public safety measures aimed at slowing the illness’ spread.

A crowd of angry, largely unmasked people objecting to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ mask mandate for schools shouts in opposition to wearing a face covering at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. The board refused to hold a public hearing on whether to challenge the mask mandate because people refused to comply with the building’s mask requirement. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

Even Louisiana’s overwhelmed hospitals, stalled surgeries, lengthy waits for a hospital bed and the ever-increasing death toll from COVID-19 haven’t persuaded some people to take the precautions available to them.

Instead, hundreds of angry people who attended legislative and education board meetings in Baton Rouge repeated misinformation, challenged coronavirus data and accused elected officials of medical tyranny. They called the surgical masks that doctors and other health care professionals have worn for decades “experimental medical devices.” And they insisted that Gov. John Bel Edwards, Louisiana hospital leaders and public health experts won’t be changing their minds about the coronavirus immunization or masks.

“I can’t understand that, and I certainly can’t explain it,” the Democratic governor said on his monthly radio show. “There is no reasoning with some people. Because when you refer to the numbers we’re experiencing in Louisiana, well, many people don’t believe the numbers. If you talk about the recommendations of the CDC, well, they don’t trust that.”

Louisiana has repeatedly broken records this month in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, according to state health department data. Dozens of people are dying from the disease each day. Most of those deaths and hospitalizations involve people who are unvaccinated, the health department reports.

“There’s no doubt about it, if we had a higher vaccination rate, we would be in a better situation,” Warner Thomas, CEO of Ochsner Health, Louisiana’s largest hospital system, said in a Thursday COVID-19 briefing with reporters.

Amid Louisiana’s latest surge of the coronavirus outbreak, more people have started the vaccination process, showing that fear can be a powerful motivating factor. Still, only about 39% of Louisiana’s residents are fully vaccinated, one of the nation’s lowest inoculation rates.

Meanwhile, Edwards’ executive order that anyone age 5 or older wear a mask indoors when in classrooms, businesses, or public buildings has been praised by health care leaders but faces resistance in day-to-day life. That’s obvious when walking into a grocery store, a restaurant or other locations where some people aren’t following the mandate.

“More people adhering to the mask mandate would make it more effective. We’d like to see more consistency from the general population in masking,” Thomas said. “We’d like to see kids are masking in schools. We think that’s important.”

Another day, another Louisiana government hearing about COVID https://t.co/w16lR5KIvw

— Sam Karlin (@samkarlin) August 18, 2021

The House Health and Welfare Committee hearing barely began before yelling emerged when Republican Chairman Larry Bagley told the packed committee room that everyone assembled would have to put on a mask or exit to another room. Security guards removed several people from the room for refusing to comply.

But the Louisiana House security guards were able to get the unruly crowd to largely follow the masking requirement so they could spend hours airing their complaints to lawmakers, along with a smaller group of pro-vaccine, pro-mask attendees.

It was a different scene at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education board meeting, where Capitol law enforcement under the oversight of the Louisiana State Police did little to enforce the face covering mandate and allowed the room to be crowded with unmasked people.

That meeting devolved into disorder, with people chanting “no more masks,” a pastor taking over the room to preach and individuals shouting about freedom, their personal rights and other reasons for their refusal to don a mask.

Someone objecting to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ mask mandate for Louisiana schools scrawled an anti-mask message and left it at the door of the hearing room for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. The board refused to hold a public hearing on the mask mandate because the room was crowded with people who refused to put on face coverings. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

Amid the chaos, the education board members didn’t visibly ask the police officers to help regain order so they could have the planned debate about masking requirements for children in K-12 schools. Rather, the board simply voted 8-2 to adjourn the meeting without having the discussion since the crowd assembled refused to calm themselves or follow the rules.

That leaves Edwards’ mask mandate in place for school classrooms, since the education board never got to the part of the discussion where members were supposed to decide if they wanted to challenge the governor’s authority to enact the requirement.

But that still won’t mean everyone’s following the mandate.

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