NEW ORLEANS — Yanti Turang, an emergency room nurse at a New Orleans hospital, walked out into the parking lot in full protective gear early this month to meet a woman with flulike symptoms who had just returned home after a layover in South Korea. The woman was immediately taken to an isolation room.
Around the same time, a man who had never left the country and had been in New Orleans throughout the just-concluded Mardi Gras season, showed up at the ER with a high fever and a dry cough. He was placed in a neighboring room and cared for by hospital workers without any special gear.
To everyone’s relief, the woman who had traveled through Asia tested positive for the standard flu. The man, however, did not, Turang said. His symptoms improving but his diagnosis unclear, he was told to take Tylenol and get some rest. And he was sent back out into the city.
Turang does not know what became of that man, but he was on her mind two days later when the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was announced in Louisiana — another person, at another hospital. Coronavirus had been in the city all along. Since then, the outbreak here has become one of the most explosive in the country.
According to one study, Louisiana is experiencing the fastest growth in new cases in the world. Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday that the current trajectory of case growth in Louisiana was similar to those in Spain and Italy. This week, President Donald Trump approved the governor’s request for a major disaster declaration, which unlocks additional federal funding to combat the outbreak.
The situation in and around New Orleans is particularly acute, with the city now reporting more than 2,000 confirmed cases as of Thursday, more than the total number of cases in all but 15 states. Hospitals are overwhelmed and critical safety gear is running low.
Orleans Parish, which shares its borders with the city of New Orleans, has suffered the highest number of deaths per capita of any county in the nation. Of the parish’s 37 deaths — nearly three times the death toll of Los Angeles County — 11 are from a single retirement home, where dozens more residents are infected.
Mardi Gras might’ve exacerbated coronavirus
In a grim irony, there is a rising suspicion among medical experts that the crisis may have been accelerated by Mardi Gras, the weekslong citywide celebration that unfolds in crowded living rooms, ballrooms and city streets, which this year culminated Feb. 25.
It is the city’s trademark expression of joy — and an epidemiologist’s nightmare.
“I think it all boils down to Mardi Gras,” said Dr. F. Brobson Lutz Jr., a former health director of New Orleans and a specialist in infectious disease. “The greatest free party in the world was a perfect incubator at the perfect time.”
The feeling is at once familiar and distinct for a city whose history is punctuated with epic disasters, including the deadly yellow fever outbreaks of 1853 and 1905, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Once again, New Orleanians are afraid they could be neglected by national leaders, only this time because the coronavirus is a worldwide calamity.
“This hurricane’s coming for everybody,” said Broderick Bagert, an organizer with the community organizing group Together Louisiana.
Edwards, who, like most other Louisiana governors, has extensive experience dealing with hurricanes, said the state was struggling to confront this new kind of disaster.
“We don’t really have a playbook on this one,” he said.
“If you have a flood or a hurricane it’s only a small part of the country that’s affected, so you can get the full attention of the federal government and you can get a lot of help from sister states,” he said. “That’s not possible right now because this is in every state in our country.”
As a kind of ghostliness settles over a locked-down nation, the effect of social distancing feels particularly jarring in New Orleans, a city that runs on intimacy — from the deep webs of kinship and geography that connect families and neighborhoods to the fleeting threads that bind strangers and regulars in storied restaurants and packed, sweaty clubs.
Now the grand restaurants are offering takeout, if they are open at all. The clubs are silent. Bourbon Street is just another lonely street, its only crowds the hordes of rats that have become increasingly brazen in their hunt for food. Dr. Catherine S. O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, compared this year’s Mardi Gras to the infamous 1918 “Liberty Loan” parade in Philadelphia. That gathering took place in the midst of an influenza pandemic, packed 200,000 people onto city streets and likely contributed to Philadelphia’s grisly death toll, with more than 12,000 people dying within a six-week period.
But O’Neal blamed no one for failing to take action to limit Mardi Gras festivities. At the time, no cases of the virus had been identified in Louisiana and there were fewer than 50 known cases in the United States.
“We were still talking about hand-washing,” she said.
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