NEW ORLEANS – There were the great fires of 1788 and 1794 and the multiple yellow fever outbreaks of the 1800s. Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the memories linger in New Orleans like remnants of a bad dream.
Now the city is one of the nation’s hot spots for coronavirus. As of Friday, New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish had recorded more than 80 of the state’s 119 COVID-19 deaths and more than 1,700 of the state’s 2,700-plus known cases. The numbers have been climbing fast, in part because increased testing is revealing more people to have the disease.
Why New Orleans has become a hot spot is uncertain, although medical experts and government officials openly speculate that the annual Mardi Gras celebration in late February was a factor. It draws more than a million tourists and locals to city streets each year.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has repeatedly warned that the state’s health care system could be overwhelmed by early April. Louisiana is preparing for 2,000 to 4,000 patients above normal for this time of year, said Joseph Kanter, an assistant state health officer.
Morial Convention Center, which sheltered Katrina refugees in sweltering squalor, is about to become an emergency hospital for a potential overflow of virus patients, which will once again test emergency preparedness in a city where rescue efforts were widely viewed as inadequate in 2005. The rush is on to corral protective masks and gowns for medical personnel and to gather lifesaving ventilators.
Meanwhile, an economy largely built on the opposite of social distancing — tourism, crowded restaurants, music at bars and nightclubs — is being sacrificed to stay-home orders, business shutdowns and bans of gatherings of more than 10 people. Live music, which reverberates through the city’s history, is, for now, history itself.
Bartenders, waiters and hotel staffers are out of work. And the city’s heralded musicians, who could at least travel the world looking for gigs after Katrina, have nowhere to go in a pandemic.
“I’ve been playing music all my life, since I was a teenager,” said 78-year-old John Moore, better known as session guitar virtuoso, singer and band leader Deacon John. “I’ve never been unemployed. But now, all of a sudden, WHOP! The day the music died.”
“It does feel like what we cherish about this city is being taken away from us,” said George Ingmire, a longtime DJ at the city’s famed roots music station WWOZ. “The reason that some of us came here and never left ... and those that are from here and take deep pride in ... That’s all unavailable right now. That’s really heartbreaking.”
The city’s vulnerabilities include its poverty and low-wage jobs.
“I worry very much that a lot of people in our city are operating ... on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis,” said John Clarke, a professor at Tulane University’s business school.
He said the New Orleans economy lacks big companies that are often better positioned than smaller enterprises to weather financial ups and downs. The industries that New Orleans has in abundance — hospitality, gambling, tourism — have basically “come to a full stop."
A high poverty rate could also crimp the city’s ability to combat the disease. Drive-up testing, which allows symptomatic people to get tested while lessening their possible exposure, isn’t always an option for the poor. According to the Data Center, a New Orleans-based think tank, nearly 1 in 5 households do not have access to a car.
Preexisting conditions, a risk for those who get COVID-19, are another problem in south Louisiana, Kanter said.
“We know that our population has more other diseases, underlying, than perhaps other parts of the country do. We have a lot of diabetes, heart disease, renal disease and liver disease here. That puts us at risk for worst outcomes – very difficult to model for these,” Kanter said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.
Meanwhile, medical workers are conserving protective masks and gowns by re-using them. A nurse at a suburban New Orleans hospital, who was not authorized to speak to reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity, said staffers have discussed using plastic rain ponchos, like the ones French Quarter tourists buy at souvenir shops on rainy days, as protective gowns.
“People are handling it well and soldiering on,” the nurse said. “But there’s a lot of people worried about catching it and giving it to your family and all that stuff ... We want to help but we don’t want to be sacrificial lambs."
Associated Press writers Janet McConnaughey and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.