The alarm among public health and government officials is rising in Louisiana and across the country this week, as coronavirus cases continue to grow and fears mount that efforts to tamp down the virus are now failing.
And their worries are prompting blunt warnings.
“We have been there before, we can go back there again,” said a forceful Latoya Cantrell, the mayor of New Orleans, on Wednesday, referencing the city’s near-total shutdown in March. “And if we do not practice personal responsibility and adhere to the mandates that are tied to this emergency declaration, we can go back.”
Cantrell was announcing a new task force to crack down on large gatherings and businesses that aren’t adhering to the limits on capacity and directives to wear masks in public, and her exasperation at those flouting the rules was palpable.
Over the weekend, the director of the New Orleans Health Department, Dr. Jennifer Avengo, used even more cutting language after the city announced it was investigating two new outbreaks of the virus traced to graduation parties and bars.
The city’s fatality rate for known COVID-19 cases is 7 percent, she said, “so if you are planning an uncontrolled gathering or a party for 100 people, look at that guest list and decide which seven of them you would be comfortable sentencing to death.”
Trends in growing coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are spread right across Louisiana, according to data from the health department, and that’s also forced Gov. John Bel Edwards to postpone any further reopening of the state.
“This remains a very contagious disease, it only takes a few careless people to change the course of our trajectory,” he said Monday.
Those “careless people” are the target of public health warnings, and not just in Louisiana.
Such alarms were echoed on the national level by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading public health voice on the pandemic, when he alerted Congress to rising cases in southern and western states this week.
“We're now seeing a disturbing surge of infections,” he told the House Energy and Commerce Committee, “that looks like it’s a combination, but one of the things is an increase in community spread.”
Community spread is a sign that the virus is flowing increasingly freely among the public, rather than flourishing in a confined setting such as a nursing home. And nearly all new cases of the virus in Louisiana are community spread.
The biggest worry is that these trends could lead to another full-blown outbreak and overwhelm hospitals.
On Tuesday, Louisiana reported a spike in positive cases and the highest rate of positive coronavirus tests since May 24. That day, nearly 7.5 percent of tests were positive.
“We've been around 5 percent for much of May in the first part of June. Now we're tracking up past 6, 6.5 percent,” data analyst Jeff Asher said. On Wednesday, the state saw a similarly high rate of positive tests.
One key feature of rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations is that they’re a problem for regions and rural areas left unscathed by the first spike of the outbreak. One such hotspot is in the center of Louisiana, including Alexandria. Mayor Jeff Hall said people there seemed to be following the governor’s health directives until Memorial Day. But then they appeared to relax.
“I still see people just like you do in public settings, far too many people, and they’re not masked up,” Hall said.
He said he’s been pleading with people in the city to wear masks and keep physically distant from others.
“We just can't let it up, because people have to understand that it's real,” he said. “You look at the numbers in your community, in your region, in your state, in the nation, in the world. It’s real.”
Government and health officials suspect people are no longer taking the virus seriously. And there’s evidence that politics could be playing a role in how people are responding.
A survey by the Pew Research Center conducted over the first week of June found that only about half of Republicans who responded said they wore a mask all or most of the time in the past month, compared to three-quarters of Democrats. And that trend is particularly true for conservative Republicans.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott tried to tackle that reluctance head-on on Monday.
“I know that some people feel that wearing a mask is inconvenient or that is like an infringement of freedom,” he said. “But I also know that wearing a mask will help us to keep Texas open.”
Most Republicans haven’t been wearing a mask at the Louisiana capitol in Baton Rouge — and only this week did the Senate president begin to ask lawmakers to wear masks, after a student worker tested positive.
Recent studies have shown mounting evidence that masks dramatically decrease coronavirus spread — especially indoors. They work because they stop the virus from entering the air by keeping it behind the mask of anyone infected.
Many people who’ve attended the dozens of protests this spring were wearing masks, something that Avegno suggested could be why the city hasn’t seen an outbreak traced to recent protests.
Meanwhile, the city and state have particularly raised concerns that younger people may be increasingly contracting the virus. People aged 18 to 29 represent a rising percentage of new positive cases across the state — a fact that could show the virus is spreading in that population — and young people were the driving factors behind the New Orleans outbreaks.
More than 11,000 people under the age of 29 have contracted the virus in Louisiana so far, and 13 have died.
“The myth that young people cannot get sick or seriously ill is completely untrue,” Avegno said. “More importantly, they can spread it to loved ones and contacts who are at much higher risk.”