By Hannah Osborne
Coronavirus cases in Louisiana may start rising again as a result of Hurricane Laura, just as the state appeared to have got the virus under control.
Hurricane Laura made landfall in the state early Thursday. The National Hurricane Center warned of an "unsurvivable storm surge" that could penetrate up to 40 miles inland. The hurricane currently has sustained winds of around 120mph and is moving northwards over southwest Louisiana.
Across the Gulf Coast, half a million people have been ordered to evacuate. In the Cameron parish, where the storm made landfall, around 7,000 people were urged to leave their homes. According to the Star Tribune, around 150 people refused.
The coronavirus pandemic has put additional pressure on preparations for this hurricane—and other storms that may follow this season. Under normal circumstances, residents in danger are evacuated to huge indoor shelters in other parts of the state, with members of the public housed together. Doing this would put social distancing measures at risk, potentially allowing the virus to spread with ease. Having a huge number of people in an indoor, confined environment is known to facilitate the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
According to The Advocate, Governor John Bel Edwards' administration booked over 1,700 hotel rooms in order to help people stay isolated from one another. The state still plans to use "mega-shelters," but only after hotels have been utilized fully. "We need to treat every individual out there... as if they have COVID," Edwards is quoted as saying. The Department of Transportation and Development was also providing face masks and regularly sanitizing buses that are being used to ferry people away from danger zones, The Advocate reported.
While these measures will help to limit spread, the increase in social contact the storm will cause is likely to increase the risk of coronavirus spreading. One preprint study on the medRxiv website looking at the impact hurricanes could have on COVID-19 spread found evacuations would increase the total number of coronavirus cases both in the regions being evacuated, and the areas evacuees were taken. The study has not been peer reviewed so findings should be taken with caution.
Professor Christian Renschler, from the University at Buffalo, studies extreme events including hurricanes and disaster preparedness. He told Newsweek COVID-19 will make evacuating people more difficult because of space for shelter, transportation and even rescue.
"Sheltering together is therefore especially challenging and there will be most likely an uptake in cases and where medical or hospital are needed may very likely be not available as needed," he said. "There is also very likely an increase of a lot of other cases In need of critical hospital services."
As of Thursday, Louisiana had reported 144,960 COVID-19 cases and 4,688 deaths. The state was hit hard in July, when there was a huge rise in cases. However, at the start of August numbers started to fall and by the middle of the month it appeared to have leveled off.
According to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, new cases have been falling for the last few weeks. Testing has remained at a steady rate and the positivity rate—the ratio of positive tests to the number of tests performed—had fallen to around 4.9 percent. The World Health Organization says that in order for a region to safely reopen, the test positivity rate should be below 5 percent for two weeks. Louisiana's test positivity rate peaked in March at 37 percent.
Louisiana has suspended coronavirus testing because of Hurricane Laura. At a press conference, Gov. Edwards said that this leaves the state "blind."
Not being able to test people for coronavirus means there will be a lag between people developing symptoms and getting a diagnosis. If people do not know they have the virus, they may be more likely to spread it. Many people with SARS-CoV-2 are also asymptomatic, but are still thought to be capable of infecting others. A disruption in testing will also lead to disruption of the contact tracing system. Combined, this could result in increased transmission.
"The challenge is we're basically going to be blind this week because we're having to discontinue much of our community based testing," Edwards said. "This comes at a particularly bad time for us as it comes two to three weeks since we resumed K through 12 education and since we started moving young people back onto college campuses. This is when you would really want to be looking really hard to see those first signs of whether we're going to have increased cases and increased positivity. We won't be able to have that this week."
Renschler said he believes there will be an increase in coronavirus cases because of Hurricane Laura. "Doing research in a post-disaster landscape has its own challenges and it will take some research to prove this," he said. "What is most important right now is the support of the impacted communities and those communities that surround them providing shelter and other services to support evacuees in the short-term and long-term. Consequences of the combined impact of COVID-19 and Hurricane Laura will be impacting a much larger footprint as the hurricane itself through physical damages. Therefore a more holistic approach and a long-term view has to be taken to assess, understand, respond and prepare for situations like this."
Published August 27, 2020