Rep.-elect Luke Letlow’s coronavirus death this week has been met with shock and grief from fellow lawmakers, offering another stark example of the lethality of a pandemic that has killed more than 340,000 Americans.
Letlow, 41, died Tuesday at a hospital in Shreveport, La., succumbing to the virus just days before he was to be sworn in Sunday after winning a runoff vote this month for Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District. The Republican was set to succeed his former boss, Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., who did not run again after three terms.
Letlow, whose office announced that he had tested positive on Dec. 18, is the highest-ranking U.S. politician to die of the coronavirus.
Doctors said Letlow had no apparent underlying health conditions that contributed to his death. He is survived by his wife, Julia, and two young children.
“This pandemic is real and it’s taken too many of our loved ones,” Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Republican, said in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, plans to send voters back to the polls to fill the seat, probably on March 20, a spokeswoman said, the same day as a scheduled special election for the 2nd Congressional District seat held by Rep. Cedric Richmond, who is joining President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet.
Candidates can begin declaring for what would have been Letlow’s seat on Jan. 20. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote on March 20, the race would go to a runoff on April 24, officials said.
Letlow’s death comes as coronavirus cases and fatalities are spiking across the United States. On Tuesday, Louisiana recorded more than 3,900 new cases and 61 deaths, according to data compiled by The Washington Post, a 185% jump over the average number of deaths in the past seven days. In all, the state has had more than 304,000 cases and 7,397 deaths.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a doctor who tested positive this year and has since recovered, was more pointed in flagging the dangers of the virus.
“It just, just, just, just brings home covid can kill,” Cassidy said. “For most folks it doesn’t, but it truly can. So, as you remember Luke, his widow, his children, in your prayers, remember as well to be careful with covid.”
Yet such warnings came against the backdrop of an ongoing national debate over how states and municipalities should react to the spiking virus, which health experts said will probably continue to rage during the next several months, even as initial batches of two vaccines are being distributed.
Democrats, including Biden, have called for tighter restrictions, including limits on gatherings and the widespread use of masks. Some Republicans, including President Trump, have called some restrictions harmful to businesses and an infringement on personal freedom.
Trump has worn a mask on only a handful of occasions, and he spent three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in October after contracting the virus.
Letlow was a longtime player in Louisiana GOP politics before winning elected office himself. He served as chief of staff to Abraham from the start in 2015 and had worked in the administration of former governor Bobby Jindal before that.
Kimberly Allen, who met Letlow while working on Jindal’s unsuccessful 2003 gubernatorial campaign, described him as born for a career in politics with a deep love for Louisiana history.
They would spend hours talking about past governors of Louisiana, she said in an interview, and Letlow would meticulously collect political memorabilia from campaign buttons dating to the 1920s to old magazine articles. He started from scratch when he lost everything he owned during Hurricane Katrina, Allen added.
“It was clear to everyone around him he was a shining star with a bright future in politics,” Allen said.
As the coronavirus ravaged his state, Letlow urged residents to follow social distancing guidelines and to listen to doctors, noting that Abraham, a physician, had returned to Louisiana to help treat patients with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Photos on his Twitter page showed Letlow sometimes covered his face at meet-and-greets but also spoke indoors without a mask to rooms of barefaced residents. At a candidate forum in October, Letlow urged the state to ease pandemic restrictions, saying, “We’re now at a place if we do not open our economy, we’re in real danger.”
In a fall interview with local conservative radio host Moon Griffin, Letlow commended Trump’s handling of the pandemic and expressed skepticism about mask mandates.
“I get where they are coming from on it but you got to always remember, each time you pass a law or an executive order that can’t be regulated with law enforcement, I think, you know, you’ve got a real challenge,” Letlow said, according to a recording of the show.
Letlow and his staff chronicled his diagnosis on his campaign Facebook page, first posting Dec. 18 that he was resting at home after testing positive. Three days later, he posted that he was hospitalized and urged people to donate blood and plasma to help during the pandemic.
“I am confident that with their help I will be on the mend soon,” Letlow wrote on Dec. 21, referring to his doctors.
Two days later, his former campaign manager posted a statement on his Facebook page disclosing that Letlow had been transferred to the intensive care unit of a different hospital. The statement quoted the hospital chancellor describing Letlow’s condition as stable while receiving Remdesivir – a drug to shorten recovery time – and steroids.
This week, he was in critical condition but showing signs of recovery, G.E. Ghali, the chancellor of LSU Health Shreveport, told the Advocate. But on Tuesday, Letlow suffered a “cardiac event” and died, Ghali said.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., told Fox News on Wednesday that he had been in touch with Letlow.
“It was just heartbreaking,” Scalise said. “We would talk a lot about the things he wanted to do, the committees he wanted to get on. Boy, talk about a loss of someone with so much energy.”
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The Washington Post’s Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.