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'This Should Scare The Hell Out Of You': New Orleans Officials Warn Delta Variant Is Here And 'Killing People'

A vaccinator administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. March 4, 2021.
Phoebe Jones
A vaccinator administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. March 4, 2021.

The highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus is causing a rise in COVID-19 cases in New Orleans and is “killing people,” city leaders warned Tuesday.

“Delta is here,” said Beau Tidwell, the city’s director of communications at a press conference at City Hall with other officials. “This should scare the hell out of you.”

The warning comes as the Delta variant threatens a surge in cases and hospitalizations across the state, and the country.

The delta variant is both far more contagious than the original strain of the coronavirus that sparked the pandemic, and it’s believed to be more virulent. Last week, state officials warned the delta variant is now the dominant strain in Louisiana.

“It is spreading easily and rapidly,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the director of the city’s health department.

Across Louisiana, daily cases of COVID-19 have doubled in two weeks, and hospitalizations, which had been hovering around 250 or 300 for the month of June, are now up to 410.

In New Orleans, the increase is less steep, but the average daily number of new cases over seven days is as high as it was in March, at 47 new cases a day, Avegno noted.

“So that sort of wipes out the progress that we've been making in the past four months,” she said.

New Orleans has the highest vaccination rate in the state. Just over 63 percent of adults aged 18 and older have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and more than half of all residents, including kids, are fully vaccinated.

But there’s an age gap, Avegno said. For people 60 and over, 80 percent have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; for those 18 to 39, the figure drops to just over half.

Louisiana remains one of the least-vaccinated states in the country. About 36 percent of people here are fully vaccinated. In many parishes, only one-third of the entire population have had at least one dose of a vaccine, Avegno said.

“That is not a very good level of coverage, so it should not be surprising then that we're seeing the Delta variant spread widely throughout Louisiana and encroach into New Orleans,” Avegno said.

The vaccines remain highly effective against the delta variant and all known circulating strains of the coronavirus. About 99 percent of deaths from COVID-19 in Louisiana have been among unvaccinated people since mid-January.

“If that is not a strong reason to get vaccinated, I really don't know what that is. And that's undeniable evidence that COVID is now a preventable disease,” Avegno said.

City hospitals are seeing bed shortages, she said, as they deal with an ongoing shortage of nurses and an influx of patients from across the state. Ambulances are facing wait times because there’s no staffed bed to transfer them to.

Pediatric admissions to hospitals are also rising, Avegno said, as viruses kept in check during shutdowns have the ability to spread again, including the coronavirus.

Avegno advised parents of children too young to be vaccinated to wear a mask in public when they’re in doors. She gave the same advice for people who have regular contact with someone medically vulnerable to COVID-19.

Vaccines are unlikely to be available for children under the age of 12 years before school starts, but Avegno said she’s confident in school requirements that will allow only children and teachers with proof they’ve been vaccinated to go maskless in schools.

Only a very small fraction of those vaccinated have tested positive for COVID-19 — 1,763 so-called breakthrough cases among the roughly 1.6 million people who’ve been fully vaccinated. As of Friday, 27 people had died, and the median age was 73.

Still, the circulating delta variant increases the risk to even those who’ve been vaccinated, and Avegno said she’s wearing a mask in public for that reason — to protect her vaccinated mother who has health conditions.

“It's a small price to pay, wearing my mask when I go to the grocery store or church or wherever it is that I am, knowing that I'm cutting down on a small risk of being that breakthrough case that could land her in the hospital or worse,” she said.

The delta variant also poses another threat: the chance of a new mutation that beats the vaccines. The more virus that spreads, the greater chance it has to mutate. And the more mutations, the greater chance that one will arise against which the vaccines prove less effective.

“If the virus continues to have a susceptible population in which to spread, it will inevitably, as all viruses do, mutate to a strain that is much more resistant to vaccine,” Avegno said. “It's a race against time.”

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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