Gov. Edwards announces “modest” raises for teachers in proposed budget during briefing on winter storm recovery, COVID-19 response

Louisiana

BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards says his upcoming budget proposal on Friday that is balanced, require no cuts, and will include “modest” raises for teachers and support staff and more money for higher education.

“We know teachers deserve more than that, but it’s another step in the right direction,” Edwards said in a briefing Thursday afternoon in Baton Rouge.

The budget will propose $400 raises for K-12 teachers and $300 for support staff, and an increase in the higher education formula, along with more dollars for GO Grants, which he said the state will be matching to the increase for TOPS.

Edwards noted that current legislation making its way through Congress could have an affect on the final budget, however. He also said he would be encouraging Louisiana’s congressional delegation to move forward with a proposed federal minimum wage hike that is part of the corovirus relief package.

The minimum wage in Louisiana has remained at $7.25 since 2009 because it is one of a handful of states that does not have a state minimum wage and therefore defaults to the federal minimum wage. Edwards said he has supported raising the state’s minimum wage in Louisiana since before he became governor.

“We have asked for one every single year,” Edwards said, adding that $7.25 is “simply not enough in 2021.”

Edwards on Thursday also announced that Emergency replacement SNAP benefits will be available starting Saturday to recipients in three parishes where last week’s winter storms caused widespread and extended power outages. Those parishes are Avoyelles, Red River, and Sabine. Those outside the approved parishes can still apply for the replacement benefits individually. The deadline to make those requests has been extended to March 10.

The Louisiana National Guard has distributed more than 2.2 million liters of water to areas affected by the storms. Edwards said there are about a dozen water-related outages still affecting some 24,000 people, eight of them community water systems.

Edwards was in Shreveport last week as the city continued to deal with widespread water issues caused by the frigid temperatures as numerous lines froze and burst, leaving many with little to no water in their homes. Water has since been restored to most of the city, but system officials are still trying to identify those who still do not have water. Distribution efforts continue around the city and surrounding areas.

The Louisiana National Guard has been assisting in water distribution, bringing bulk water to hospitals and bottled water to distribution sites. The governor is expected to update the state’s efforts to help those areas still recovering from the winter storms.

Six deaths around the state have been linked to the extreme winter weather, including that of a man whose body was found at an abandoned building in downtown Shreveport on a night when temperatures had dropped to the low single digits.

On the COVID-19 front, the governor said that he expects to sign new emergency orders next week rather than extend the current Phase 2 order and mask mandate, which have already been extended multiple times since the summer with modifications. That decision comes as vaccinations continue to be administered and as cases statewide and around the country continue to decline. The latest orders are set to expire on March 3.

Vaccination distribution efforts are picking up again following last week’s winter storms. The Louisiana Department of Health updates COVID-19 vaccination data on Mondays and Thursdays at Noon. As of the latest update, 925,991 total doses had been administered around the state, including 332,415 completed two-dose series, according to the LDH. Just over 68,000 doses have been administered since Monday.

Louisiana was supposed to get around 80,000 doses last week, but the majority were delayed because of icy and snowy weather across the country. Those vaccines have now arrived, and State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said the state expects to get another 97,650 Pfizer and Moderna doses next week. If the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine gets Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA over the weekend, another 37-38,000 doses of that new vaccine could be on the way and Kanter said if that comes through, it will be the state’s biggest allocation to date.

State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said Thursday the statewide percent positivity rate has remained flat at 5% since last week, and while the winter storms significantly slowed testing efforts, “by other indicators like hospitalizations and so forth, there no question we’re going in the right direction.”

The LDH also reported 779 new cases Thursday, bringing the total to 427,689. There were 679 COVID-19 patients in hospitals around the state, down from a peak of 2,069 in early January. Of those, 106 are in Northwest Louisiana hospitals.

Kanter said cases in Louisiana’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities are also at their lowest number of new cases among residents since the coronavirus first spiked in the state back in April, with just 43 new cases over a seven-day period.

While that is an encouraging sign that efforts to vaccinate the most at risk for the virus are working as intended, Kanter warned that health officials remain concerned about the variants.

“And this continues to be an iceberg scenario, with the relatively little amount of genomic sequencing that’s done in this country, when you have some identified cases, you know you have more we just haven’t formally identified.”

To date, Kanter says the state has confirmed 18 cases of the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 variant otherwise known as the UK variant in regions 1 (Greater New Orleans), 4 (Acadiana), and 7 (Northwest), with another 50 suspected cases pending confirmation with the CDC in those regions, plus 5 (Southwest) and 6 (Central). Nationwide, just under 2,000 cases of the UK variant have been identified in 45 states, but Kanter believes it’s safe to bet it is already present in all 50 states.

“That’s all the reason to continue with our mitigation measures,” Kanter said, including masking and social distancing. “We know this variant is growing, we know it’s circulating, we know it’s transmitting. We need to do all we can now to continue to suppress transmission so that we don’t give it a foothold. and the way this plays out, if we do a good job of that and suppress transmission enough and buy us enough time to get enough vaccine out there, we can avert what we fear might be another spike.”

There are no confirmed cases of the B.1.351 variant known as the South African variant in Louisiana, but it has been identified in 14 states, including Texas. No cases of the P1 variant known as the Brazilian variant have been identified in Lousiana but it has turned up in four states, including Oklahoma.

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