New Orleans officers urge return of masks indoors, extra testing as COVID instances rise | Coronavirus

Citing rising COVID cases and coronavirus particles in wastewater, New Orleans health officials on Tuesday strongly recommended masking indoors, though they stopped short of returning to any previous requirements.

Dr. Jennifer Avegno, medical director for New Orleans, talks about the rise in COVID-19 levels in the metro area during a press conference in front of city hall on Perdido Street in New Orleans, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (Staff Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

The warning came as the city reached a medium level of risk for COVID-19 based on federal guidelines, following a steady but slow rise in cases since April. Although cases and hospitalizations are still low compared to the state’s previous five surges, city health officials said that acting now would prevent more cases, hospitalizations, deaths and disruptions to normal life.

“The virus isn’t going away,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, director of the health department during a news conference. “We’ve got to anticipate future surges, but they can be ripples and not tsunamis.”

But despite a call for more precautions, this increase marks the first time New Orleans will find itself in the midst of a rising cases without requirements for masks or vaccinations while the city has largely returned to a pre-pandemic pace. Jazz Fest, which concluded two weeks ago, hundreds of thousands to gather, and other big events such as Essence Fest, New Orleans Pride and Southern Decadence await. While summer is considered the city’s slow season, it drives people indoors, where transmission is more likely.

But at this point, sweeping mandates are not effective, especially in a population that doesn’t always adhere to them, said Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University.


Dr. Jennifer Avegno, medical director for New Orleans, talks about the rise in COVID-19 levels in the metro area during a press conference in front of city hall on Perdido Street in New Orleans, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (Staff Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

“We’re moving into a time where everyone has been through this for two years,” Hassig said. “We know what needs to be done to protect ourselves and protect those that we care about.”

But although the choose-your-own-risk approach to mitigation efforts like masking represents a big shift in how the pandemics impacts daily life, it’s one that moves risk to people who have fewer tools to protect themselves – those who cannot work from home, are often in environments opposed to masking, or have a condition that makes them vulnerable, said Hassig.

“I’m still really worried about people who don’t have a lot of agency,” Hassig said. “I worry about people who are living in congregate settings without agency to move, whether it’s incarcerated correctional personnel or people in long term care facilities.”

Avegno said the city was not considering a mandate, which she acknowledged has not always been followed in the past. Instead, she promoted testing, masking and seeking access to new treatments that can lessen the likelihood of hospitalization.

“I am confident we will be able to get ahead of this without a mandate,” Avegno said.

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051822 Recent COVID cases chart

Areas of New Orleans with high concentrations of tourism and hospitality businesses are among those experiencing a larger wave in cases, along with some residential areas, according to data that measures the concentration of coronavirus in wastewater. Although tourism and recent festivals may be a factor, especially when tourists come in from areas with higher transmission, the city is also seeing community spread.

“We’re seeing transmission locally – not a surprise,” said Avegno. “We’ve all been out doing all the things for the last couple of months.”

On Tuesday, the state reported 96 hospitalizations, which was an increase of 65% from a week ago, when there were 58. There was a weekly average of 3,000 cases reported on Tuesday, an increase of 56% over the last week and 245% over the last month. About one-third of the hospitalizations and nearly 50% of the cases were in New Orleans.

Of Louisiana’s nine regions, LDH recorded a higher average positive test rate in Region 1 at 4.6%, which includes New Orleans; Region 3 at 4.1%, which includes the south central coastal areas; and Region 9 at 5.3%, which includes the Northshore.

Although the free federal testing provided by the national guard will end this month, the city will distribute at-home tests door-to-door and make high-quality masks available at certain fire stations and libraries, Avegno said. Approximately 15,000 tests and tens of thousands of masks will be available.

The federal government has also made another round of eight free at-home tests available through the US Postal Service, which can be ordered at

Avegno also emphasizes treatments available for people who do test positive. Paxlovid, an antiviral pill manufactured by Pfizer, has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by up to 90% in unvaccinated people when given in the first five days of symptoms. It also seems to reduce severe outcomes in vaccinated people.

Paxlovid is available for free through a prescription from your physician or through the federal government’s two “test-to-treat” clinics in New Orleans. Those sites are the CVS at the corner of Claiborne Ave and Napoleon Ave and at DePaul Community Health Centers. People who are at higher risk due to a number of common health conditions can schedule appointments at those locations by calling 1-800-232-0233. However, there are some conditions that the treatment is not good for, including those with kidney or liver disease.

“This is a critical way to keep our hospitals going and to prevent the flood of patients and the breakdown of the system that we’ve seen in previous surges,” Avegno said.

Physicians are seeing an increase in sick patients enough to be hospitalized, though it’s not yet at the same rapid clip as the last wave, said Dr. Jeffrey Elder, medical director for emergency management at University Medical Center.

“We expected some bumps along road and increases in the community,” said Elder. “The next question, and we don’t have an answer, is how much we’ll be impacted and how many people will test positive.”

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