Death rate soars in New Orleans coronavirus ‘disaster’ that could define city for generations

NEW ORLEANS — Throngs of revelers may have brought the coronavirus to New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations here.

But the city’s poverty rate, lack of healthcare and affordable housing, and high rates of residents with preexisting medical conditions may be driving its explosive growth and could make it the next U.S. epicenter of the outbreak.

The number of known coronavirus cases in Louisiana jumped to 2,305 on Thursday, an increase of 510 cases from Wednesday, and a total of 83 deaths, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. Nearly half of Louisiana’s cases — 997 — came from New Orleans.  

The city also reported Thursday that a 17-year-old teen died after contracting the virus, bringing the city’s coronavirus death tally to 46 — more than half of the state’s total death count. 

In this Thursday, March 19, 2020, file photo, a view of the nearly deserted scene on Bourbon Street, which is normally bustling with tourists and revelers, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Like many cities around the country, New Orleans is currently under a shelter-in-place order as it grapples with a growing number of coronavirus cases.

New Orleans Homeland Security Director Collin Arnold said hospital capacity in the New Orleans region is dwindling and the city will need additional hospital beds within weeks.

“New Orleans is preparing to mobilize in a way we hope we will never see again in our lifetimes,” Arnold said. “This disaster will define us for generations.”

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New Orleans saw its first coronavirus case on Mar. 9. Two weeks later, confirmed cases jumped to 567 and nearly doubled the following three days, marking one of the fastest coronavirus growth rates in the country.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the face of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said officials in New Orleans were likely caught off guard by the virus’ stealth spread — until it began burgeoning. 

“It putters along and you think you’re OK, then it starts to go up a little and then – bingo! – it goes up in an exponential way,” he said in an interview with CNN. “That’s what’s happening in New Orleans now.”

Infectious disease specialists point to the massive Mardi Gras celebrations, which picked up with weekend parades in February and culminated on Feb. 25, Fat Tuesday, as a likely catalyst for the coronavirus in New Orleans. More than 1 million people crammed into the city for the annual bacchanal, often squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder to watch parades or catch beaded necklaces tossed from balconies in the French Quarter. 

Members of the New Orelans Police Department help clear Bourbon Street as Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards orders bars, gyms and casinos to close until April 13th due to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 16, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“New Orleans is a major gateway for people who are arriving here from other parts of the world,” said Richard Oberhelman, chair of the department of global community health and behavioral science at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. “Seeing cases first in New Orleans makes complete sense.”

Once here, the virus found a welcoming environment in houses crammed with multiple families, people with preexisting conditions and a dearth of drivers, according to an analysis by the Data Center, a research group in New Orleans.

Many low-income families live in overcrowded homes, raising the likelihood for virus spread, the report said. Around 24% of New Orleans residents live at the poverty level, higher than other coronavirus hotspots such as New York City (17%) and King County, Washington (9%). 

Also, 1 in 5 of New Orleans households don’t have access to a car, meaning access to drive-thru testing can be limited, and nearly one-fourth don’t have access to the internet to follow city directives and access information, the report said. 

“The virus is spreading very quickly,” said Allison Plyer, the Data Center’s chief demographer. “The rates we have are up there with New York City, yet we have vulnerabilities here that are worse.”

Street performer Eddie Webb walks through the nearly deserted French Quarter looking to make money in New Orleans, Sunday, March 22, 2020.

Lack of affordable housing could also help spread the virus, as some communities will find it challenging to follow the shelter in place directives, said Andreanecia Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA, a non-profit housing advocacy group. 

A city with around 1,200 homeless residents, 24,000 people on a waiting list for Section 8 federal housing subsidies, and thousands more without a lease or mortgage could struggle to contain the virus, she said. 

“You’re telling people they have to shelter at home,” Morris said. “But many don’t have a place to shelter.”

As cases mount, the lack of medical equipment is becoming an alarming issue. Half of the New Orleans area’s critical-care beds are already filled with COVID-19 patients and there are just 329 ventilators available out of a total of 650, according to the state health department. At the current rate, the New Orleans area could run out of ventilators by the first week of April, state officials said. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Wednesday the city is considering refitting the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to care for up to 3,000 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 but don’t require ventilators. The first 120 beds were scheduled to go into the convention center this weekend, Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a press conference on Thursday. 

“This would free up space at hospitals for people who are more vulnerable,” Cantrell said. “We want to continue to free up beds for people on ventilators.”

Meanwhile, people stayed indoors throughout the city while the French Quarter, usually the city’s thriving center, sat uncharacteristically quiet and nearly empty. 

Brice Miller, a 44-year-old jazz trumpeter and cultural entrepreneur, had gigs booked at weddings, the Spotted Cat bar just outside the French Quarter and other clubs around the city. As the virus took hold, his phone buzzed with cancellations.

He’s lost around $30,000 in revenue since the coronavirus emerged in New Orleans, he said. 

“This is our high season,” Miller said. “It’s the beginning of wedding season, convention season, tourists are flocking in. That’s all gone.”

The virus also stole a personal event for him. Miller’s father died recently of a heart attack (unrelated to the coronavirus) but area funeral homes won’t host the body due to restrictions on large gatherings. 

“I can’t say my final goodbye,” he said. “I can’t give him a proper send off.”

People stand stranded on a roof in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina August 30, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

When the coronavirus closed down Marjie’s Grill in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood, owner Caitlin Carney and her partner, Marcus Jacobs, turned to cooking meals from the restaurant for those on the outbreak frontlines: healthcare workers in hospitals.

The new venture provides some revenue for the restaurant but mostly makes them feel like they’re contributing to the fight against the virus.

“We’re just trying to focus on doing positive things for the community, while being as safe as possible,” Carney said. “Mental health is just as important as physical health in this. For us, working on doing good things helps with our mental health.”

It’s not the first time New Orleans has faced down a deadly outbreak. In 1853, nearly 8,000 people died in the city during a yellow fever outbreak that roiled across the region.

The city’s unsanitary conditions at the time, proximity to swamps and marshes and business leaders downplaying the virus’ spread contributed to the deadly epidemic, said historian and author Lawrence Powell. 

“For the longest time [New Orleans] was an unsanitary nightmare,” he said. “Our conditions were even worse than most.”

During this outbreak, city leaders took aggressive measures to contain the virus, though whether they responded quickly enough remains in question. City officials cancelled the popular St. Patrick’s Day parade, which draws thousands to the city, and upcoming events like French Quarter Fest and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival have also been cancelled or postponed.

Until around Mar. 20, nearly three weeks after the first case was identified in the city, few coronavirus tests were available. But they have since ramped up. Three drive thru testing locations set up in New Orleans last weekend had tested 2400 people as of Wednesday, according to the city officials. 

“Compared with other counties around the country, what we know is that we have one of the highest infection rates behind several counties in New York,” New Orleans’ health director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said. “To be clear, that’s partially because we are doing a great amount of testing.”

Fauci, the White House coronavirus leader, said New Orleans officials were shutting down the city “in a very rigorous way” — aggressive steps that could have been taken earlier.

“it is likely that that should’ve been done a little bit sooner,” he said. 

Jervis is an Austin-based correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter at: @MrRJervis. Clark reported from New Orleans and Reyes from New York City. 

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