Edwards

GOV. JOHN BEL EDWARDS holds a press conference on April 14, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a family affair for Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Edwards' brother, Tangipahoa Sheriff Daniel Edwards filed a class-action lawsuit Friday, he says, on behalf of the 3,000 sheriffs across the country who have spent unexpected funds reconfiguring jails to socially distance inmates at a time when fees and tax revenues dropped off.

Daniel Edwards is seeking $700,000 in damages and apparently did not consult with his brother, Edwards, before taking on the whole country of China. The sheriff’s class-action suit is the first such suit in Louisiana but joins similar lawsuits filed in Texas, Missouri, Nevada and California against the Chinese government.

Donald Massey, with the New Orleans law firm Couhig Partners, is representing Daniel Edwards. The lawsuit claims a research lab in Wuhan, China was responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s not an easy case and that’s one of the things I found attractive about it,” Massey said. “There are ways to enforce it.  There are jurisdictional statutes, such as the Foreign Cyber Immunities Act, for example.  They do provide an avenue, the clearest of which is that the leadership in China and their laboratory were acting as commercial players.  It’s just that simple.  They were commercial players.  Their excuse that they have sovereign immunity doesn’t apply.”

Edwards says his brother did not speak to him prior to filing the lawsuit that would reflect on Louisiana and has not spoken to the sheriff since.

“I have not,” Edwards said in his Friday press conference. “I have not.”

When asked whether his brother notified him of the lawsuit, Edwards said, “No. You know, my brother doesn’t ask my permission of anything. No, he really didn’t [call]. I don’t know anything about it.”

The governor did, however, confirm he had spoken with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry about a possible lawsuit on behalf of the state. He said the two had had one brief conversation and that Landry was researching the state’s options.

Meanwhile, Edwards admitted other legal issues were more pressing especially concerning possible privacy issues associated with the startup of a new state-administered program called Contact Tracing. Contact tracing is a method to be used by Louisiana’s Coronavirus wing of the state Department of Health to use cell phones to track citizen movements. A contact tracer will monitor a computer program that signals when a person gets close to another person who has tested positive. The tracer will call that person to determine who else they may have been around.

But many cell phone users today, if not most, do not answer calls they don’t recognize.

Dr. Alex Billioux, Assistant Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, admits that could be a problem.

“Right now, there is no notation on your phone that will say that a contact tracer is calling you,” Billioux explained. “We’re also looking at other technologies to potentially layer on top of this such as reaching out through text messages and potentially reaching out through apps. But all of this is going to have to be informed by the data and then adapting as we see challenges.”

Edwards says he understands the “liberty issues” of tracking individuals because of medical issues but he is appealing to everyone to join the effort to eradicate the virus by every means possible.

“Sometimes we get wrapped around the axel on what we have a right to do,” said Edwards. “I’m going to ask people to consider what is the right thing to do and the right thing to do is to be a good neighbor. I suspect the overwhelming majority of Louisianans are going to do just that. They’re going to be appreciative of being warned they may have been around someone who’s tested positive.”

The governor says the contact tracer, trained in courtesy and protocol, will diplomatically suggest that whether or not the person exhibits symptoms, he or she should consider staying at home for two weeks, the accepted incubation period for COVID-19.

“We’ve been playing catch-up the whole time,” Edwards said, “so if we want to get our economy to open sooner, this really is part of the new normal. This isn’t some invention by Dr. Billioux and me. This is part of the national strategy. This is how South Korea got the virus under control quickly.”

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