Louisiana is grappling with its worst covid-19 surge since the pandemic began. The state reported 3,428 new cases as of Friday. More worryingly, 84% of its ICU hospital beds are full, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services compiled by the Daily Advertiser. The vast majority of those beds are in the New Orleans area, which is located on the most dangerous side of Ida, and Baton Rouge, which will face some of Ida’s most devastating impacts as well. Mississippi will likewise be blasted by Ida’s rain and storm surge right as the state takes the ignominious distinction of having the highest deaths per capita of covid-19 anywhere in the U.S.
In an era of climate change and a pandemic, nothing happens in a vacuum. The situation unfolding in the South shows how crises can cascade on top of each other—and raise the risk of deadly outcomes.
Louisiana and Mississippi have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S. Fewer than half of each state’s population have received a first covid-19 vaccine shot. That’s led to the crushing summer wave of covid-19 across the region, straining hospitals to the limits.
Because this is a regional problem across the South and because Ida’s impacts will be so widespread as it pushes inland, that means there simply aren’t many hospital beds available to move those who are critically ill. Some of the sickest patients in Ida’s path were moved, but many hospitals are largely hunkering down and helping the patients they do have as Ida hits.
“We don’t have any place to bring those patients,” Louisiana Gov. Bel Edwards told the AP. “Not in state, not out of state.”
Power outages are already sweeping across Louisiana. As of early afternoon, nearly 224,000 customers were without power in the state, mostly in the southeast corner where Ida came ashore. More outages are likely as the hurricane pushes inland, and that means patients and hospital staff will have to rely on emergency generators to keep on the lights and ventilators keeping covid-19 patients alive. During Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, hospitals notoriously lost power and backup generators failed with catastrophic and deadly results. Ida will test hospitals, and see if they’ve learned from past failures.
Hurricane shelters have opened across the region. (You can find one near you here, text “lashelter” to 898-211, or call 211, though it may be too dangerous to go outside at this point.) Last year, disaster experts worried that covid-19 could spread in shelters amidst what was the worst hurricane season ever recorded. But it’s an even bigger worry now with the more transmissible Delta variant causing the majority of infections across the U.S. and the aforementioned lower vaccination rates in Louisiana and Mississippi.
While there could well be a new bump in the covid-19 wave already hitting the South due to crowding in shelters, there are also acute needs that will surely crop up in the wake of the storm. That could stretch hospitals even closer to a breaking point.
Ida is likely to cause all manner of injuries. An analysis of 2008's Hurricanes Gustav and Ike showed that nearly 3,000 people visited Red Cross field stations after the storms for acute pain, respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, and other factors. After Katrina, another study found that both relief workers and survivors reported 7,543 nonfatal injuries from two to seven weeks after the storm, the most common of which were “fall and cut/stab/pierce” injuries.
What Ida holds remains to be seen. But given that sewage systems are starting to fail and that it’s ripping through a region with a high density of fossil fuel infrastructure, the risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal issues could be particularly high in addition to the inevitable injuries that occur during the recovery process. The hurricane injury surge will add to what medical professionals are already dealing with.
The recovery process itself will also be impacted by covid-19. Last year, disasterologist Samantha Montano wrote about the risks of “disaster fatigue.” It’s a growing phenomenon in a country that has been besieged by climate disasters and crushed by a pandemic. In an eerily prescient piece from last June, here’s what she had to say:
The disasters the U.S. has faced so far during this pandemic have been relatively small in size and geographically confined. While that in no way diminishes the pain and destruction they have caused, it is an important distinction from a management perspective. They have required a smaller scale response compared to events the size of a Harvey or Maria. So, there are still unknowns about what will happen when a big disaster inevitably hits.
Her piece was written at the start of hurricane and wildfire seasons that were both record setters, even as the pandemic took hundreds of thousands of lives. Ida’s arrival as one of the strongest storms on record to hit Louisiana while the state—and the region—are in the grips of a horrifying covid-19 outbreak is a layering of two large-scale crises. Whether volunteer networks will turn out to help in the wake of Ida or stay home rather than risk catching covid-19 is an open question. But the trends certainly don’t bode well.