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As COVID rises yet again, New Orleans officials recommend indoor masking

Avegno May 17 2022
Carly Berlin
Health Department press conference, May 17, 2022

As COVID cases rise in New Orleans yet again, city officials strongly recommended a return to indoor masking and provided updates on virus precautions and treatments to buffer against a summer surge.

“The virus isn’t going away, and we’ve got to anticipate future surges — but they can be ripples, and not tsunamis,” said city health director Jennifer Avegno at a press conference Tuesday morning.

As of Tuesday, New Orleans will shift from low risk to medium risk, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention metrics, Avegno said. Orleans Parish is currently seeing 155 average daily cases, about a fivefold increase from a month ago. That number is likely a significant undercount because of the prevalence of unreported take-home tests, Avegno said.

She noted the upward trend began before the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival brought hundreds of thousands of tourists to town for seven days of revelry beginning in late April.

A month ago, the city was already beginning to see evidence of increased coronavirus levels through wastewater testing, which can be an early indicator the disease is spreading, according to reporting from the Advocate.

A new descendant of the omicron variant is now spreading across the country, and it’s good at reinfecting people who had omicron in the winter. Two different lineages of omicron have already spread in the U.S. The second of them, called BA.2, caused a minor bump in cases this spring nationwide.

Hospitalizations remain fairly low in New Orleans — as of Tuesday, there were 96 people hospitalized with COVID — and Avegno said the surge is not yet causing a strain on hospital capacity. But an uptick in hospitalizations tends to lag an increase in cases by a few weeks, Avegno added.

“We think we have time at this point to get ahead of it and prevent that from happening,” she said.

The city does not plan to reinstate a mask or vaccination mandate, Avegno said. Instead, officials strongly recommend that residents return to masking in indoor, public spaces.

“If we, as a community, can adopt short-term but widespread indoor masking again, we can get back to not needing a mask much quicker,” she said.

This surge comes at the same time that some testing options are starting to go away. At the end of this month, the National Guard will close its two PCR test sites, which have been a mainstay since the pandemic began in early 2020. New Orleans Public Schools will also shutter its weekly testing of students when school lets out for the summer, Avegno said.

Other options remain available for New Orleans residents. A list of testing sites can be found at the NOLA Ready website. People with health insurance can generally get take-home tests reimbursed. And as of today, the federal government is offering a third round of free tests delivered to households.

The city will also scale up its effort to provide free tests to community groups, Avegno said, as well as having community health workers distribute tests in areas where residents might face challenges getting them otherwise.

Free masks will be available at select fire stations and library locations, though Avegno did not provide specific locations during the press conference.

Avegno stressed the importance of vaccinations and booster shots to ward off severe infection and death. The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday authorized the first booster shots for children ages 5-11.

And as cases tick up this time around, New Orleanians have yet another tool to combat severe disease: new oral antiviral treatment for COVID, authorized by the FDA in December.

The pill, Paxlovid, is designed to treat mild-to-moderate COVID symptoms for people at high risk of progressing to severe disease.

If you test positive, Avengo recommended calling your healthcare provider to assess if Paxlovid would be the right treatment.

The city is also operating a limited number of test-to-treat clinics — sites supported by the federal government where an individual can make a quick appointment, get tested and leave with Paxlovid if it’s right for them.

New Orleans only has a handful of these sites: the CVS pharmacy at the corner of Claiborne and Napoleon avenues, and DePaul Community Health Centers, though it wasn’t immediately clear if all of the DePaul sites would offer the drug.

Avegno stressed that the city is pushing to open more of these test-to-treat centers.

“We know that having two sites that are not necessarily in the best geographic locations is not going to cut it for a lot of people,” she said.

More information on test-to-treat sites can be found here or by calling 1-800-232-0233.

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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