Dr. Catherine S. O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist and medical director at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, compared this year’s Mardi Gras to the notorious 1918 parade in Liberty Loan, Philadelphia. The gathering took place in the midst of an influenza pandemic, packed 200,000 people on city streets and likely contributed to Philadelphia’s cruel death toll, with more than 12,000 people dying within a six-week period.
But Dr. O’Neal accused no one of taking any steps to limit the Mardi Gras festivities. At present, no cases of the virus had been identified in Louisiana and there were fewer than 50 known cases in the United States. “We were still talking about hand washing,”
Dr. Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said there were other probable reasons, besides Mardi Gras, that might explain why New Orleans has been so badly affected – the dense, compact city nature; its tourism industry; its port, which connects it to the world; and how people connect culturally.
“Everyone talks to everyone, which means you stop and you have a conversation and then you move on and have a conversation with someone else,” Dr. Hassig, who went to a Mardi Gras parade with the Krewe of Muses this year.
Turang, the emergency nurse, who worked in Sierra Leone during the 2015 Ebola epidemic, said doctors and nurses are now talking about the patients who showed up at Mardi Gras Hospital and the announcement of the first case on March 9, people with moderate flu symptoms who had tested negative for flu.
“We were blinded,” she said, “by the fact that it was actually here in New Orleans already.”
The first confirmed case in Louisiana was announced less than two weeks after Bold Tuesday. About the same time, reports had begun to emerge in southern Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas – about people who tested positive after returning from New Orleans recently.
The first people to test positive in New Orleans, according to Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the city’s health director, had not recently returned from anywhere else. But their range of unusual symptoms had troubled doctors.