The state of Louisiana was already reeling from rising COVID-19 cases before Hurricane Ida strengthened to a Category 4 and struck the state on Aug. 29. In its aftermath, as a great number of its residents assess the damage and deal with widespread power outages, they must also contend with how Ida may have worsened the state’s battle with COVID.
As NBC News observed, “the high levels of circulating coronavirus” from the state’s biggest wave to date, “coupled with the state’s low vaccination rates and the forced close proximity that occurs during a storm, could set the stage for an explosion in cases.”
“We’ve got so much COVID in the Southeastern United States,” Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said. “The pandemic will probably will get worse.”
NBC News pointed out that even vaccinated people who are taking precautions against COVID might find it challenging to do so in post-hurricane conditions.
Dr. Joshua Denson, a pulmonary medicine and critical care physician at Tulane University Medical Center in New Orleans, encouraged his vaccinated family to evacuate before Ida hit. This placed them in close quarters with other family members.
“Everybody’s taking on more risk, including my own family,” Denson said. “Delta doesn’t really care. It still spreads.”
An article from USA Today observed that the combination of “crowded shelters, delayed treatments and inundated hospitals” put under-vaccinated communities at particular risk.
Pediatrician Irwin Redlener, founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, assessed the scenario as a “pandemic tinderbox.” He noted that shelters housing people who have had their lives and homes disrupted by the storm can create “super-spreader” situations just because of the numbers of people in relatively close proximity to each other.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards noted the complexity of the situation, pledging the state will seek to get evacuees into hotel rooms expediently to help reduce interactions that might lead to more COVID-19 cases. State officials are also asking shelters to utilize masking and testing as mitigation measures.
The situation is putting a particular strain on the state’s hospitals, a number of which are operating on generator power while an army of workers attempts to get power grids back online.
“For me, it’s like a one-two punch to the gut,” Dr. Mark Kline, physician-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, told CNN. “The thing is, the same doctors who have been here well over 24 hours working nonstop through the hurricane, those are the same doctors who have been stressed to their limits taking care of children with COVID over the last couple of months.”
In addition to the power challenges, which the governor is working to address in concert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, some hospitals are dealing with debris and water leaks. Some are even considering transporting patients to hospitals in other states — though one bordering state, Texas, is already experiencing hospital bed scarcity due to its latest COVID wave.
As Kline mentioned, not all hospitals have the option to transport patients, even if hospitals in neighboring states have beds.
“Fewer than 5% of hospitals across the U.S. are children’s hospitals and so we can’t just transfer our sick kids to just any hospitals,” Klein said. “It has to be to a place that takes care of very seriously ill children with complex medical problems.”