As Louisiana continues to see weeks-long increases in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, health officials have tracked hundreds of cases related to food processing facilities, bars, industrial sites and a host of other settings.

The data, which was released for the first time Wednesday, partly reveals the scope of the problems associated with places like crawfish processing facilities and bars, which have experienced some of the most conspicuous outbreaks to date.

The Louisiana Department of Health has confirmed 11 outbreaks at food processing plants, tied to 423 cases; 36 outbreaks at bars, tied to 393 cases; and 16 outbreaks at industrial settings, with 117 cases related to such facilities. The data is cumulative since the start of the pandemic, though the state's ramped-up contact tracing didn't start until mid-May.

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In all, the agency tracked 135 outbreaks totaling 1,432 cases. Aside from the top three settings, the list includes colleges, three outbreaks with 84 cases; restaurants, 16 outbreaks with 68 cases; construction sites, three outbreaks with 48 cases; casinos, four outbreaks with 38 cases and more.

The figures are a “significant underestimation” of the total number of cases in each setting, said Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health. That’s largely because the state has struggled to get people to answer contact tracing calls that would shed more light on where the virus is being transmitted.

Still, they have raised concerns among health officials that places like bars, where people go to drink and socialize often indoors, are spreading the coronavirus as the state struggles to get a grip in rising caseloads.

“That’s a setting that presents a lot of challenges for us to manage,” Billioux said of bars.

The Health Department defines an outbreak as two or more cases among unrelated individuals who have visited the site in a two-week period.

The figures are collected through reports made to the agency by the public and by contact tracing, a key part of the state’s reopening strategy. The state spent millions of dollars hiring and training hundreds of call center workers to reach out to people who were infected and find out who they came into contact with.

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As of Monday, the effort was still floundering. Data provided by the Health Department showed contact tracers had only reached 55% of the infected people in the state’s database. And that number is below 40% when looking at the total number of cases confirmed since May 15, when the program began, because the state doesn’t have contact information for thousands of people.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has hesitated to take steps like issuing a mask mandate or shut down watering holes, like Texas and other states have done to try to blunt the surge in cases.

Edwards said Wednesday he is still trying to “promote compliance” with the existing restrictions. The state is doing that by embarking on “courtesy checks” to places like restaurants and bars to see if they’re following the rules. He also again urged people to wear masks, which health experts and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control say are helpful in limiting the spread of the virus, especially from the person wearing the mask.

Edwards indicated he could tweak the state’s rules to limit gatherings further. Currently, establishments can operate at 50% capacity but no greater than 250 people. That 250-person threshold is “more liberal” than other states and federal guidance, Edwards said.

However, he said he’s “not currently contemplating” a statewide mask mandate. East Baton Rouge, Orleans and Jefferson parishes, as well as Shreveport, have issued mandates at the local level.

If the hands-off strategy doesn’t work, Edwards said he will do “whatever is necessary” to make sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

While that isn’t currently the case, a group of hospital leaders on a call with Edwards Wednesday did express several concerns, telling him they’re seeing sustained increases in coronavirus patients and some trouble getting access to the treatment remdesivir, which can help those hospitalized with severe cases.

Statewide, hospitalizations have increased by more than 50% in the past two weeks, reaching levels not seen since mid-May.

Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge saw a three to four-fold increase in ICU patients with coronavirus in the past week, up to 19 per day.

“It happened like a light switch,” said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, the chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge. “We saw the same volume of admits (for COVID) that we saw in March.”

Our Lady of the Lake and Tulane Health System said they are seeing younger patients than those who arrived at hospitals in alarming numbers at the start of the pandemic, though Tulane said it is not seeing an uptick in numbers.

Louisiana has more than 25,000 active cases of coronavirus, Billioux noted, which means it has become more likely people will become infected when going out. He urged people to “think twice” about where they’re going, considering the data released on outbreaks at various types of settings.

“No matter how you slice and dice the numbers to put it bluntly, COVID-19 is probably more present, more rampant in Louisiana today than it has ever been,” Edwards said.

Here’s the full list of outbreaks at non-congregate settings, which exclude places like nursing homes and prisons. 

Can't see full list below? Click here.

Source: Louisiana Dept. of Health


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com