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2022 Baton Rouge Mardi Gras events face uncertain future amid COVID surge

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome participates in a COVID-19 media briefing alongside Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. July 1, 2020.
Paul Braun
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome participates in a COVID-19 media briefing alongside Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. July 1, 2020.

The Louisiana Department of Health reported 9,290 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, marking the continuation of a weeks-long trend that has seen case numbers and hospitalization rise sharply as the omicron variant spreads across the state and the country.

The Baton Rouge area reported 612 cases, prompting concern from East Baton Rouge Parish officials. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome held a press conference Tuesday with local health experts to brief the public on the COVID situation in the parish and how it would affect city-parish events.

Broome said Tuesday that it is too early to say if the surge will force the cancellation of the city’s slated Mardi Gras balls and parades this year, but did announce that Martin Luther King Jr. Day events would be moving online to reduce COVID risk among celebrants.

Broome expects to reschedule the planned series of MLK Day service projects in February after health officials expect the omicron variant to have peaked.

“It’s a fluid and changing situation,” Broome said. “We’re just encouraging people to mitigate right now, and I believe that as I confer with our medical experts and as we get through January, they will have a better grip on what we can and should do for February, including Mardi Gras.”

Baton Rouge area health professionals urged people to stay abreast of the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health officials to mitigate their risk of contracting and spreading the highly transmissible variant.

That means wearing masks, practicing social distancing and self-isolating if exposed to COVID or if experiencing flu-like symptoms.

The CDC now strongly recommends booster shots for all people age 12 and older and has modified its self-isolation guidelines to accommodate a nationwide shortage in COVID tests.

Also individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19 are encouraged not to seek out a test unless they exhibit symptoms. Even those who have mild symptoms may be told to self-isolate at home until their symptoms abate. Five days after they are symptom-free, they may be cleared to return to school or work as long as they wear a well-fitted mask.

But recent changes to the CDC’s recommendations around booster shots and quarantine periods have sowed doubt among the public.

“We understand your frustration with dealing with these two years of COVID,” Dr. Mike Rolfsen of the Baton Rouge Clinic said. “You hear mask, then don’t mask. You hear how many vaccines you need. You hear testing ability change: first, we have it, then we don’t have it. You need to understand that these guidelines change based on what we see in the community and the country.”

Dr. Louis Minsky, Chief of Staff of the Baton Rouge General Medical Center, said the number of COVID patients in his hospital has quadrupled since the week before Christmas. But unlike the delta surge, only 15% require treatment in the intensive care unit — a far smaller percentage than the 50% who required intensive care over the summer.

And the hospitalized patients of this COVID-19 surge are, on average, much older than those who contracted the delta variant over the summer. At the peak of the delta surge, 45% of patients were under the age of 50.

“This time it’s about 22%,” Minsky said.

Minsky said it is clear that vaccinations and booster doses are the most effective protection available against the omicron variant.

The majority of patients hospitalized at Baton Rouge General with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, Minksy said, and among the relatively few vaccinated patients in the hospital, 75% had not received a booster shot.

That remains true for the rest of the parish. As of Jan. 2, 86% of COVID-19 hospitalized patients in East Baton Rouge parish were not fully vaccinated, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

“There’s no doubt the mitigation message should be ‘vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate, wear your mask when it’s appropriate and social distance,’” Minsky said.

To see the latest data on COVID and vaccinations in Louisiana, click here.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.