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Coronavirus Hits Hard In The Crescent City


Cities and states grapple with how to manage the rapidly spreading coronavirus. New Orleans is emerging as potentially the next major hot spot in the U.S. The rate of transmission there is far outpacing other places across the country. In just a week, Louisiana has gone from zero to nearly 600 known cases, and that's with limited testing. The number is certain to be much higher. Sixteen people have died.

While most of the national attention has focused on New York City and around Seattle, officials in Louisiana are bracing for a surge in new cases. Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO reports.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: In New Orleans, schools are out, restaurants are closed and most of the city is shut down. Tulane University medical resident Charlie Santos is working overtime at a local intensive care unit.


CHARLIE SANTOS: Good morning.

WENDLAND: Their first ICU case was last week. He says they built a wall to separate COVID-19 patients from others, and it's expanding every day.

SANTOS: Every time I come to work, I look at this wall as a reminder that I'm entering a different place than the hospital I'm used to.

WENDLAND: He records himself on his phone as he puts on a mask and protective gear and enters the new ward.

SANTOS: So now I've entered our COVID ICU. It's much more quiet here. Pretty much every patient is very sick.

WENDLAND: Outside, the city is mostly quiet. Bourbon Street is empty. The shops on Magazine Street are closed. And Masses are canceled at St. Louis Cathedral. Thousands are without work. During a now-daily press conference, Governor John Bel Edwards emphasized the new rules and warned the public.


JOHN BEL EDWARDS: I want people to be prepared for this as best they can. This is going to get much worse before it gets better.

WENDLAND: As early as next week, he says the state will be unable to take care of all of the sick patients without help from the federal government.


EDWARDS: Our trajectory is basically the same as what they had in Italy. And if you think that just because we're in the United States of America we can't possibly get to where Italy is today, I would ask you on what assumption are you making that determination?

WENDLAND: Edwards laid out plans to use old hospitals and put up temporary buildings to house overflow patients. The state's already closed off three parks to house sick people and activated the National Guard to run those isolation sites. Dr. Brobson Lutz has a private practice in New Orleans.

BROBSON LUTZ: I think Louisiana was more prepared for Hurricane Katrina than we are prepared for COVID-19.

WENDLAND: And he would know. He was the city's health director in the '80s and '90s.

This is a state that often ranks at the bottom when it comes to health outcomes and disparities. After Hurricane Katrina, some public hospitals closed and never reopened. In New Orleans, city-run clinics were shut down. Lutz says this is the calm before the storm.

LUTZ: I think we're going to have a complete collapse of our available health sources if, indeed, that peak occurs.

WENDLAND: He says other states should look to Louisiana as a warning, where the virus was spreading undetected as early as February during Mardi Gras, when up to a million locals and visitors partied together in the streets. He says now is the time to socially isolate. Now is the time to stock up on medical supplies. Now is the time to tap into a reserve force of volunteer medical staff.

LUTZ: What I see on the front lines of providing medical care here in Louisiana right now can be summed up in three words - confusion, confusion and confusion.

WENDLAND: That's not just true for the medical system. It seems to be the case for much of New Orleans. Even though the mayor has asked people to stay at home, groups of teenagers are playing basketball. The grocery stores are teeming with shoppers. And people are hanging out at parks as the sun sets on another otherwise perfectly lovely spring day in Louisiana.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tegan Wendland is a freelance producer with a background in investigative news reporting. She currently produces the biweekly segment, Northshore Focus.
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