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Devastated By Storms, Lake Charles Battles High COVID Cases In The Midst Of Recovery

Bill Feig/AP Photo/POOL

Kelli Tidwell Stawecki hasn’t lived in her home since Category 4 Hurricane Laura devastated Lake Charles last August.

“We're seven months in and we are sitting here with no home,” Stawecki said. “My home is currently gutted. I have no floors, ceilings, walls, nothing. [The] only thing I have is a new roof. That's it. And I'm still in limbo with contractors not showing up.”

Stawecki’s insurance coverage for additional living expenses pays for her to rent an apartment in town. But the landlord charges more than twice the normal rent because she’s month-to-month. She’s worried that money will run out before repairs on her home are finished.

Still, as a homeless outreach leader for Water’s Edge Church, Stawecki knows a lot of people in the area that have been less fortunate than her since Laura.

“It’s increased our homeless population, just based on the fact that there's no low-income housing,” Stawecki explained. “We have a lot of families living in their cars and just in people's backyards. Multiple joint families living [together] … we had one that was 17 people in one house and it wasn't even a big house.”

Living arrangements like that could be one reason why COVID-19 rates are so high in Lake Charles.

In fact, according to the health department’s metrics, Calcasieu Parish, where Lake Charles is located, has had one of the highest coronavirus test percent positivity rates in the state by far, reaching nearly 14 percent for the week of March 11. In other words, nearly one in seven people who were tested for the coronavirus that week tested positive.

By contrast, in New Orleans, the percent positivity rate was 0.9 percent.

The majority of the known or suspected cases of the highly contagious, highly virulent U.K. variant, B117, have been detected in Southwest Louisiana.

The latest reports show Calcasieu’s positivity rate has dropped to 9.5 percent, but public health officials remain concerned.

“We've seen our hospitalizations increasing, especially here in the past couple of weeks,” Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh, public health director for the region, said.

Stawecki said she knows at least six people who are currently in local intensive care units. According to the New York Times database on ICU capacity around the country, the unit at Christus Ochsner St. Patrick Hospital was 99 percent full as of March 29. Lake Charles Memorial Hospital’s ICU was 89 percent full.

The devastation that Hurricane Laura caused in August was compounded by flooding from Category 2 Hurricane Delta less than two months later, in early October. And then in February, the winter storm that left Houston without water for several weeks also affected Southwest Louisiana. It was the strongest winter storm to hit the region in 25 years.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter, who was re-elected in early March with overwhelming support, said residents might have been able to handle these natural disasters if it weren’t for the pandemic.

“In Lake Charles, people are very used to hurricanes. I know that might sound weird, but [a] hurricane is something you could turn on the TV and see on the radar. And you can look out the window. You can see the effects. You see the storm coming and it's something that we deal with annually,” Hunter said. “A pandemic is a very foreign concept to most people here in Lake Charles, and I would include myself.”

Unfamiliarity with a less visible opponent might be how the city ended up with the highest COVID-19 test percent positivity rate per capita in the United States in July. At the time, Hunter prepared to issue a mask mandate for the city. But case numbers in other parts of the state were climbing quickly and Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a command for everyone in the state to wear masks.

“Looking back, he probably took a little heat off of my shoulders, because I know that would have been a very unpopular thing to do,” Hunter said. “There is a certain culture that is heavily woven into South Louisiana. And part of that culture is a bit of an aversion to governmental dictates or demands.”

Cavanaugh said that aversion is compounded by fatigue from everything the city has been dealt in the last year.

“I think people are so tired. They just want normalcy so bad,” she said. “It's difficult for people to think about one more thing they have to worry about, you know, grabbing their masks on the way out the door whenever they go somewhere.”

She wants people outside the region to have compassion and empathy for Southwest Louisiana communities.

“I'll try to encourage folks to follow the mitigation measures [and] to get vaccinated,” Cavanaugh said. “But I also definitely am very cautious about not blaming us, because it's definitely not our fault that a Category 4 hurricane wiped out our lives.”

The region is starting to see cases plateau, but at a high level — roughly 80 cases per 100,000 people.

“It's that much more risky for an individual person to go out and into the community. It makes the need to get vaccinated more pressing,” Cavanaugh said.

And even though COVID-19 rates are high, Southwest Louisiana has the lowest vaccination rate in the state. Just under 11 percent of the region’s population is fully vaccinated. In contrast, nearly 19 percent of the population in Southeast Louisiana, or Region 1, has been vaccinated.

While there appears to be some vaccine hesitancy, Stawecki said people are just too busy trying to put their lives back together to add scheduling a vaccination appointment to their to-do lists.

“I was offered it because I have lupus. We were preparing for the winter storm. Somebody called and said, ‘Can you come today?’ We were so busy I couldn’t even leave,” Stawecki said.

The local public health department’s mobile teams along with the Louisiana National Guard are planning multiple events to bring COVID-19 vaccines to neighborhoods in the region that have high social vulnerability and low access to providers.

Stawecki said she thinks bringing vaccines into communities that need them will help get shots into arms.

Mayor Hunter is planning to get his first dose next week. He said he waited until his age group was eligible instead of taking advantage of his position to receive it sooner.

He remains optimistic for his community.

“We are very resilient people in Southwest Louisiana, and we're going to help each other,” Hunter said. “These things have certainly been some punches to the gut, but they have not been knockout punches for the city of Lake Charles.”

COVID-19 vaccination is now available to everyone in Louisiana ages 16 or older.

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