NEW ORLEANS (CN) — The weather was lovely, the carnival celebration was lively and lasted for weeks, the floats hand-decorated and impressive. Excitement, cheer and a feeling of love for community, music and drink was in the air. But so was an invisible foe.
Mardi Gras, which ran from Jan. 6 to Feb. 25 this year, brought roughly 1.4 million tourists from all over the world to New Orleans.
Now, a month after the party ended, Louisiana has 2,305 confirmed coronavirus cases and counting, one of the highest rates per capita in the United States. There have been 83 deaths so far across the state and 676 patients in the hospital, 239 of whom are on ventilators. The death of a 17-year-old boy, announced Thursday afternoon, counted as the first Covid-19 death of a person under 36.
Public officials and medical professionals call the combination of the virus and Mardi Gras “a perfect storm,” and warn that the worst is yet to come.
“It’s projected that by the first week of April, we are going to run out of ventilators,” an internist at an ICU in a New Orleans-area hospital told Courthouse News in a phone interview Thursday.
To protect the confidentiality of her patients, the doctor declined to give her name. As must be the case with many health care providers during this crisis, she is young and working to juggle an ever-increasing workload while also facing increased responsibilities at home now that her young kids are indefinitely out of school in a statewide effort to slow the spread of the virus.
The first presumptive case of Covid-19 in Louisiana was announced March 9. Local doctors, including the internist, say medical professionals before then were likely seeing coronavirus cases and just didn’t know what they were.
Since the first confirmed case, Louisiana’s numbers have grown particularly fast relative to other U.S. states, with the New Orleans metro area seeing the majority of cases and deaths. As of Thursday afternoon, New Orleans had reported just under 1,000 coronavirus cases.
Governor John Bel Edwards postponed the state’s planned April 4 primary election and soon after officially closed schools statewide, as of March 16. Within days he followed up by shuttering bars and keeping restaurants open only for takeout. Next, he issued an order that residents only go out for necessities — groceries, work or medical supplies. Still, the numbers keep stacking up.
During a press conference Tuesday, Edwards said that, of the then-1,388 coronavirus patients statewide, none had yet recovered. Calling for a disaster declaration and federal aid, the governor also warned that New Orleans-area hospitals are projected to be out of beds and supplies by April 4.
By Wednesday, Edwards warned that ventilators will also likely run out by the first week of April. The state is distributing 100 and hopes to soon have 200 more, but he cautioned that another 600 are needed.
The internist listed the for-profit state of American health care among the overwhelming obstacles patients and hospital workers with coronavirus are facing.
When demand goes up and supply goes down, costs skyrocket. That is why the U.S. health care system is getting bailed out, and it’s why the costs of N95 masks have soared.
“All of these things make it difficult for our system to respond to the onslaught of sick people,” she said.
She said the workload so far has exceeded anything she ever thought possible.
“It’s just been really challenging with this perceived futility – or this feeling like I can’t do enough to help people,” the doctor said.
She spoke more than once of not wanting to scare the public about what hospitals and doctors are facing, of young coronavirus patients, of how once someone goes onto a ventilator she’s unsure they will pull through, and of how random this virus is.
“Seventy percent of people who go on a ventilator don’t come off the ventilator. That’s the part that we’re really struggling with right now,” she said. “How do we allocate our resources appropriately?”
The internist continued: “I think we all are scared. We are scared that we don’t have enough masks. We ran out of gowns the other night. When a patient died the other night, we couldn’t even let anyone in to see her… we didn’t have enough supplies for anyone to safely come in.”
She said the woman who died was in her 40s and because there wasn’t enough protective clothing for her husband to wear, she died alone.
“This doesn’t just affect older people,” the internist said.
She said that the initial data from China gave young people a false sense of security.
“At least from what I am seeing, there are enough people who are young getting sick that I am not comfortable getting sick,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s one in 200 or one in 400 – it changes every day, but this isn’t the flu. This is far deadlier than the flu.”
“There are a significant number of young people who are going to be affected, who are going to be sick,” she added. “I believe that when this is all said and done, everyone is going to know someone who has died. It’s a very heavy burden.”
New Orleans is made up of Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish, the equivalent to counties in other states. Each of these parishes is in the top third of the United States in terms of case numbers.
“I put an otherwise healthy teenager on a ventilator three days ago,” the internist said. “Once you see that you think, ‘This doesn’t discriminate.’”
She said the scariest part is that anyone can be hospitalized with severe symptoms. She also spoke of the honor implicit in being a physician, of “falling on your sword” and not wanting to let her colleagues down or to provide substandard care, no matter the challenges.
“We didn’t sign up to do this without masks though,” she said. “We’ll take the trauma of the pandemic, that’s our job. We’re being asked to rewear soiled masks, to use equipment longer than is appropriate.”
Asked if she believes there is a connection between Mardi Gras and Louisiana’s high number of cases, her answer was simple.
“Oh, absolutely,” the internist said.
“There couldn’t have been anything worse than Mardi Gras. It was the perfect opportunity for people from different countries to come together. That kind of established the virus in our community. And because different crowds of people came together who wouldn’t be together usually, it was a perfect storm,” she continued. “I think that’s why New Orleans will be the epicenter. I think New Orleans is going to surpass New York [in cases] in this pandemic.”