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Why Louisiana is emerging as a major coronavirus hot spot

Louisiana is one of the country’s emerging coronavirus hot spots. New Orleans alone has over 1,100 cases and 119 deaths, and the city’s convention center is being converted into a makeshift hospital to provide care amid the outbreak. William Brangham talks to Dr. Julio Figueroa of Louisiana State University Health about why residents of the state may be at greater risk of becoming seriously ill.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Louisiana is one of the emerging hot spots of COVID-19. New Orleans alone already has more than 1,100 cases and 119 deaths.

    The U.S. surgeon general warned that next week will likely be worse. and the city's Convention Center is being converted into a makeshift hospital.

    William Brangham has a conversation from the front lines of health care there.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    For a voice from Louisiana, I'm joined now by Dr. Julio Figueroa. He's an infectious disease doctor at Louisiana State University Health.

    Dr. Figueroa, thank you very much for being here.

    Could you just give us a sense? We have been hearing different dispatches from Louisiana. What's it like there? What kind of patients are you seeing in the hospitals right now?

  • Julio Figueroa:

    So, we're seeing a lot what other people have described from the standpoint of folks with preexisting conditions, older individuals coming in with primarily influenza-like illnesses, with a lot of shortness of breath, some fever.

    And then they come in, usually are doing OK. In the first week, they were doing OK, and then they would just decline very rapidly. This week, actually, it's been a little different. So, we're seeing more people coming into the emergency department with severe respiratory distress and needing mechanical ventilation, intubation pretty much straight out of the box.

  • William Brangham:

    We have also been seeing some reports that Louisiana is seeing quite a sudden spike in cases. Is that true to your experience? And why do you think that is?

  • Julio Figueroa:

    It is true, at least from what we can see. We certainly have been seeing increasing numbers of patients with the syndrome that is consistent with COVID-19.

    And why that is, is interesting. We had — first of all, New Orleanians tend to like to congregate together and enjoy things, enjoy food and family and being together. And so, those are great conditions for transmission.

  • William Brangham:

    And we know Mardi Gras just ended a month or so ago.

  • Julio Figueroa:

    Right.

    And then — and then Mardi Gras and those sorts of things certainly accentuated that. So, then the final thing is that we are a destination city. A lot of people from all over the world come here. And so, therefore, we are sort of a ripe situation for importation of a virus, and then spread.

    If we have a virus that spreads from person-to-person contact, then we're a pretty good place for that.

  • William Brangham:

    We know, just from looking at broad statistics, that Louisiana has high rates of chronic diseases in the general population.

    And that is certainly going to complicate your response, because we know that puts people at particular risk, right?

  • Julio Figueroa:

    Absolutely.

    So, one of the things that we have been seeing is that we are seeing younger — younger people who are getting very, very sick.

    And if you look at the people who are in that cohort, there are a lot of folks who have a lot of the preexisting conditions, the comorbidities that have been described in older individuals, so, diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease, lung disease, those sorts of things.

    And so we have a population that is — has more of those conditions than in many places around the country.

  • William Brangham:

    And, lastly, we know that your governor and public health officials have been issuing warnings to people to say, please stay at home, keep your distance from each other.

    I know that not all the businesses — some businesses have been closed in Louisiana. Is it your sense from being around the city and the state that people are heeding those warnings? Are they taking this seriously?

  • Julio Figueroa:

    I think, as we are evolving in this epidemic here in New Orleans, that people are more and more serious about it.

    I will say that, again, as I mentioned, New Orleanians like to gather and share stories and enjoy food together. And that has been a little bit of a change over time. But I would say that the mayor and the governor have been very good at sort of making that case that we need to be protecting each other, not only protecting ourselves, but protecting those around us. And I think there's better compliance of that now, although it is a little bit counter to our culture.

  • William Brangham:

    Well, we don't want you to deny your essential nature, but we, of course, want you all to be safe.

    Dr. Julio Figueroa, thank you very, very much for your time.

  • Julio Figueroa:

    Thank you.

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