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A Different Kind of Storm: New Orleans Facing Deadly Virus Outbreak

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A Different Kind of Storm: New Orleans Facing Deadly Virus Outbreak

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Dr. Catherine S. O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, compared this year’s Mardi Gras to the infamous 1918 “Liberty Loan” parade in Philadelphia. That gathering took place in the midst of an influenza pandemic, packed 200,000 people onto city streets and likely contributed to Philadelphia’s grisly death toll, with more than 12,000 people dying within a six-week period.

But Dr. O’Neal blamed no one for failing to take action to limit Mardi Gras festivities. At the time, 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 handwashing,” she said.

Dr. Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said there were other likely reasons, beyond Mardi Gras, that may explain why New Orleans has been so hard-hit — the dense, compact nature of the city; its tourism industry; its port, which connects it to the world; and the way people connect culturally.

“Everybody talks to everybody, which means you stop and you have a conversation and then you move on and have a conversation with somebody else,” said Dr. Hassig, who rode in a Mardi Gras parade with the Krewe of Muses this year.

Ms. Turang, the emergency room nurse, who worked in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic in 2015, said doctors and nurses now talk of the patients who had shown up to hospitals between Mardi Gras and the announcement of that first case on March 9, people with moderate flulike symptoms who had tested negative for the flu.

“We were blindsided,” she said, “by the fact that it was actually here in New Orleans already.”

That first confirmed case in Louisiana was announced less than two weeks after Fat Tuesday. Around the same time, reports had begun popping up around the South — Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas — of people who had tested positive after recently returning from New Orleans.

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. But their array of unusual symptoms had troubled doctors.

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