Orleans Parish has highest per-capita coronavirus death rate of American counties — by far

Orleans Parish has the highest per-capita death rate for the coronavirus among all American counties to date, a new analysis by The Times-Picayune | The Advocate shows.

More disturbingly, perhaps, it’s not even a close call. The county with the No. 2 rate — Richmond County, N.Y., better known as Staten Island — has a rate half that of New Orleans.

Jefferson Parish, meanwhile, had the sixth-highest per-capita death rate among American counties.

By Thursday, 46 New Orleanians had died from the virus, or a little more than 1 out of every 10,000 city residents. In Jefferson Parish, which has recorded 12 deaths, the rate was about 1 for every 36,000 residents.

Viewed another way, New Orleans has recorded more deaths than Manhattan — generally seen as America’s epicenter of the pandemic — with a population less than a quarter as large.

The advocacy organization Together Louisiana has been sounding the alarm about New Orleans’ death rates for several days. Epidemiologists and other experts called the numbers very worrisome, but said it was too early to understand precisely what they prove. They offered several theories, none of them particularly encouraging.

One possibility: The virus has been around longer and thus spread much more widely within the city and its environs than was initially understood. There’s a growing consensus that the virus was on the move by Mardi Gras, which landed on Feb. 25, though the city would not record its first known case until 13 days later.

Deaths lag known infections as an indicator of coronavirus spread, so a surprising number of deaths here could simply indicate an earlier arrival and a broader spread.

However, experts also noted the first death attributed to COVID-19 did not occur until March 14. That doesn’t undercut the idea that the virus was present by Mardi Gras, but it doesn’t necessarily suggest it was here for long before then. It’s also possible that some pre-March 14 deaths that were attributable to COVID-19 were simply tallied as deaths from pneumonia.

“I think we have a huge number of undiagnosed people,” said Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, a professor at LSU Health Sciences School of Public Health and an expert on pandemics. “Our model shows it started around Mardi Gras and spread. And we only tested people sick enough to be hospitalized, which means most people were not diagnosed because they might have mild signs and symptoms or be asymptomatic, and be contributing to the transmission.”