The usually crowded Bourbon Street in New Orleans was empty last week as Louisiana Governor John Bel … [+]
Topline: New Orleans, Louisiana, now has the world’s fastest rate of growth for new coronavirus cases and may become the epicenter for the pandemic— dashing earlier optimism that warm, humid and less-dense areas would largely escape the virus.
- According to the Louisiana Department of Health, as of Wednesday there were 1,795 confirmed coronavirus cases statewide, with 800 of those in New Orleans alone.
- Louisiana has the highest number of infected people per capita in the country after New York City and Washington, the two U.S. hotspots for the virus— but New Orleans’ growth rate is exponentially higher, with the count of confirmed cases rising by 30% in the previous 24 hours on Wednesday, according to a study at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
- On Tuesday, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said New Orleans hospitals would struggle to manage their current load past next week, and Wednesday said that the city could run out of ventilators, key in managing the symptoms of the virus, as soon as the first week in April.
- Louisiana ordered residents to stay at home and to limit their travel to prevent further spread of the virus on Sunday, and on Tuesday U.S. President Donald Trump President Donald Trump declared a major disaster, allowing the state to access federal funds and support earmarked for disaster assistance.
- Experts say the Mardi Gras celebration in February, which attracts over a million people each year to New Orleans, may have played a role in the spread of the virus in the city.
Key background: With some early evidence pointing to the virus having a slower spread in warm, humid regions, New Orleans would seem poised to take advantage of that, with its swampy environment. Experts had hoped warm weather and humidity coming this summer could lend a hand in halting the pandemic.
“If you look at this epidemic, we’ve not seen much in the hotter parts of the country. Texas has not had a lot, Arizona has not had a lot, then all of a sudden —bam!— it appears in strength in New Orleans,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College, told Reuters.
New Orleans also doesn’t have the density of places like New York City, the hardest-hit area in the U.S. Experts say the virus spread rapidly there in part due to packed subway cars, crowded public areas and cramped apartment buildings. The coronavirus pandemic has hit Louisiana as it already struggles with public health problems— the state is already the epicenter of the HIV epidemic in the U.S.
Tangent: A key factor of why coronavirus has hit New Orleans so hard may be the same reason why the city is known all over the world: Mardi Gras, the celebration before Ash Tuesday that brings millions of people to party in the streets. This year, Fat Tuesday fell on Feb. 25, which was after the coronavirus was introduced to the U.S. but before officials put the public on high alert. Mardi Gras was “the perfect storm,” to spread coronavirus, Rebekah Gee, who leads the health care services division at Louisiana State University, told Reuters.
“So New Orleans had its normal level of celebration, which involved people congregating in large crowds and some 1.4 million tourists,” Gee told Reuters. “We shared drink cups. We shared each other’s space in the crowds. We shared floats where we were throwing not just beads, but probably coronavirus off Carnival floats to people who caught it and took it with them to where they came from.”
What to watch for: The news out of New Orleans does not bode well for Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., which has already seen a surge of confirmed cases across its metro area. Similarly hot, humid and relatively spaced-out like New Orleans, there were hopes that Houston could manage to avoid the worst of the pandemic. Hotez said New Orleans could kickstart a chain reaction for the rest of the American south, where nearly half of all Americans without health insurance live.
Crucial quote: “[New Orleans is] on the trajectory to become the epicenter for the outbreak in the United States,” Gee told Reuters.