Hard Hit by Coronavirus, New Orleans Confronts Yet Another Disaster

The French Quarter in New Orleans is deserted.
Outdoor life has ground to a halt in a city known for celebrating life.Getty

Hard Hit by Coronavirus, New Orleans Confronts Yet Another Disaster

In the city of New Orleans, an enclave known for living large, the streets are eerily deserted.

The normally rambunctious French Quarter is boarded up, there are no beignets or chicory coffee to be had at Cafe du Monde and music no longer wafts from historic Preservation Hall.

February's Mardi Gras celebration may have served as a fetid Petri dish for spreading coronavirus throughout the city and beyond, though "there's no way anyone could have known about it at the time," Dr. F. Brobson Lutz, an infectious disease specialist and the city's former health director, told InsideEdition.com Monday.

Dr. F. Brobson Lutz - Cypress Network

Just a few days ago, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said his state has the third-highest rate of cases per capita and the second-highest death rate per capita. New York City remains the country's hardest-hit area.

The governor and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced that this week would be crucial to the region, as 1,000 extra hospital beds were set to open in the city's Convention Center. 

New numbers released by the Louisiana Department of Health Sunday appeared promising: 225 new cases reported and 14 deaths, down from previous days and the lowest numbers reported in more than a week. 

As of Sunday, Louisiana had 3,540 confirmed cases of coronavirus. The state has witnessed 151 confirmed deaths linked to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus. 

Lutz is still seeing patients, though most of his work is done over the phone, he said. As the city limps along under stay-at-home rules, most residents are "worried, scared and bored," he said. "The grocery stores are stocked, but what's to happen when people run of money? They're going to be up s***'s creek," he said.

He is cautiously optimistic, he says, that the virus "has already infected the sickest of the sickest," and that the additional hospital beds will help. And while the governor is begging for more ventilators to treat patients who can't breathe on their own, Lutz says he frets about the folks already on ventilators, who may not be monitored closely enough during the crisis.

Being intubated poses its own threats, including increased risk of ventilator-related pneumonia, which can cause death. "What I'm worried about is people not being trained in how to wean people off respirators," he said. "The longer you're on one, the harder it is to get off."

Living daily life in the midst of disaster is something the city knows well.

"New Orleans is a city of epidemics and disasters," Lutz said. 

In 1853, 8,000 people died from Yellow Fever, wiping out 10% of the city's population. Spread by mosquito bites in hot, humid climates, the disease tore through New Orleans, leaving corpses piled in the street.

It was a hideous way to die, with jaundice, delirium, convulsions and burning fevers among its common symptoms. Profuse bleeding was another affliction, with victims bleeding through their eyes, noses, ears and toes.

It wasn't until the early 1900s, when city officials turned to eradicating the mosquito population, that Yellow Fever ceased being an annual scourge.

Malaria, smallpox and cholera also ripped through the city during that era, fueled by the constant influx of goods and people arriving at New Orleans' teeming ports. Like other major population centers, the city reeled under the 1918 influenza epidemic.

And like other densely populated cities, officials ultimately learned drugs had little effect on stopping the virus' spread. Rather, social distancing came into being, with authorities closing schools, churches, movie theaters, play houses, restaurants and taverns.

Isolating themselves, as many Americans are now doing during the coronavirus, proved the best way to remain healthy.

Assorted hurricanes, floods and levee breaches have also plagued New Orleans over the decades, creating generations of residents familiar with catastrophe.

"And now we have the coronavirus," Lutz said. He believes people could have contracted the COVID-19 as early as January, based on a Tulane student he treated who had just returned from abroad. 

He had all the symptoms most Americans now realize indicate the virus: shortness of breath, fever, flu-like ailments. "I treated it like the flu and didn't think anything more about it," he said. Recently, he learned of other Tulane students testing positive for the virus.

"There was absolutely no survey for this pathogen until many, many people had been infected," he said. "We're just seeing the fallout now."

That said, he nonetheless remains hopeful. He is anxious about the ramifications of locking down the city, which will likely continue through April, according to the governor.

"There is a stark difference between this and Katrina," he said of deadly 2005 hurricane that decimated New Orleans. 

In the aftermath, "we were dealing with a city with few people in it," as tens of thousands fled the area. "Now we've also got a city closed down, but it's a city packed with people ... You can only stay cooped up for so long."

Tempers flare, patience evaporates and fear fuels those already prone to violence. "You explode," Lutz said. "Children get bored and act up." Abusive partners lash out. "It's a mess," he said.