From party to pandemic: New Orleans fears Mardis Gras fueled coronavirus outbreak as cases spike

March 26, 2020 at 10:35 p.m. CDT / The Washington Post

NEW ORLEANS — More than a million dancing, singing, bead-catching celebrants packed the streets of the French Quarter and other venues across this city in the weeks leading up to the sprawling open-air party that is Mardi Gras.

There was little worry during the February festivities about the new virus that had infected a few dozen people in other parts of the country. The city’s top health official believed the flu “is far more dangerous right now than the coronavirus,” she told the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate newspaper.

Thirteen days later, on March 9, Louisiana reported its first case of covid-19. Then came another, and another. Clusters broke out in several nursing homes. The cases popping up across the state were not easily linked to each other, meaning that a galloping community spread was already underway.

A terrible realization began to dawn on residents and political leaders: The famous bonhomie of the world’s biggest free party may have helped supercharge one of the most rapid spreads of the coronavirus, which is now threatening to overwhelm Louisiana’s health-care system and potentially make the state one of the next epicenters.

“We had people from all over the world. We also had the spread of this virus, and people did not realize it was spreading,” said Rebekah Gee, a former state health secretary now on the faculty of Louisiana State University’s medical school. “So people not only caught beads, but they caught covid-19.”

As of Thursday, Louisiana had reported 2,305 cases and 83 deaths related to coronavirus — with about two-thirds of the cases and deaths in the New Orleans metro area. During the first two weeks of known infections, the virus was coursing through Louisiana at an extraordinarily rapid pace, according to an analysis by Gary Wagner, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He found that the rate of growth in that period was the highest in the world.

“It seems the virus was there when crowds were around for Mardi Gras and it may have turned into a super-spreader event,” he said. “You can see what’s happening in Italy and Spain, and there is every reason to think the same events are going to happen here.”

Given the coronavirus’s nimble and exponential transmissibility, it wouldn’t have taken many cases mingling among the Mardi Gras partyers to push the state to where it is today. As few as two or three people with the coronavirus in New Orleans in late February could have engendered the current number of confirmed cases, according to a model by Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, a specialist in infectious diseases at the LSU School of Public Health. She added that there probably are many more people infected in the city than are known, because they’re not showing serious symptoms.

“It seemed like during our Mardi Gras week, we had at least two [infected] people coming into our population,” she said. “And from there, it really spread very, very fast.”

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Dr. Susanne Straif-Bourgeois is faculty in Epidemiology at LSU School of Public Health