Health and Science

New Orleans hospitals brace for Hurricane Ida amid Covid-19 surge

Alicia Victoria Lozano

Hospitals in New Orleans are bracing for public health emergencies on two fronts as Hurricane Ida threatens to strike at the same time as Louisiana is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases.

New Orleans is in the midst of a "severe outbreak" with a seven-day average of 220 new infections, according to the city's Covid-19 dashboard. Across the state, more than 3,400 new cases were confirmed as of Friday, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. At least 2,684 people are hospitalized in Louisiana with Covid-19.

Last month, Louisiana hit the biggest single-day increase of Covid-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic's start with 6,800 new cases in a single day, the second-highest single-day case count since Jan. 6, 2021.

"Once again we find ourselves dealing with a natural disaster in the midst of a pandemic," said Dr. Jennifer Avengo, New Orleans public health director. "Our plea and our hope is that everyone will prepare for both very seriously and very thoroughly."

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Avengo added that residents still have time to receive their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine if they have not done so already. Unvaccinated residents account for 90 percent of new infections recorded between Aug. 12 and 18, and 91 percent of current hospitalizations, according to the state health department.

"We urge you to do that to give yourself that extra protection," Avengo said. "If you are vaccinated, thank you."

Ida had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph with higher gusts Friday evening as it passed over western Cuba, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm will move into the Gulf of Mexico Saturday.

The storm is expected to slam the northern Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm on Sunday with maximum winds of 140 mph, according to forecasters — 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana as a devastating Category 3 storm.

Health care systems across New Orleans are already putting contingency plans in place, including beefing up staffing, ordering a surplus of supplies and minimizing the amount of patients who are admitted to hospitals with non-emergencies.

"We definitely were in full disaster mode and getting ready for this storm," said Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health.

Ochsner has ordered 10 days worth of food, medication and medical supplies, Thomas said.

"This is just something that, being in Louisiana, we're used to and we're in that mode today," he said.

At LCMC Health, the hospital will enter a "code gray lockdown" early Sunday morning and bring in additional staff to care for patients. Staff and patients will shelter in place but have not been ordered to evacuate yet, said Dr. Jeffrey Elder, medical director for emergency management.

Additionally, doctors and nurses have been told to prepare for a high volume of patients amid the Covid-19 surge.

"We've trained for this," Elder said. "We've prepared for it."

With warm water temperatures in the Gulf expected to intensify the storm, New Orleans could take a particularly bad hit. The city's mayor, LaToya Cantrell, ordered mandatory evacuations Friday for residents in low-lying areas outside of the city's levee system. She also called for voluntary evacuations inside the levee system.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the city, New Orleans hospitals learned valuable lessons about how to plan for future crises, Elder said. This includes better hardening of buildings and preparing for loss of power and water.

"Our hospitals are in a much better place than they were pre-Katrina," Elder said. "We're rated for higher intensity hurricanes and really are ready to shelter in place … to keep patients safe, keep our staff safe, and then just ride out the storm."