After two years of drastic measures meant to contain the spread of coronavirus through five separate surges, Louisiana seems to have passed the ultimate coronavirus test: Mardi Gras 2022, where thousands gathered from all over, parading and partying their way through a dazzling, blue-skied Fat Tuesday.
Now, as vaccination requirements are dropped and masks are rarer indoors, the question is this: Can we repeat safely gathering throughout the coming height of festival season, and what comes next?
“With Mardi Gras, the timing was rather fortuitous,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, state health officer. “The event took place on the downswing of a very large surge.”
Falling late this year on March 1, the holiday coincided almost exactly with the final bottoming out of the omicron surge. Over the 78-day wave, nearly 450,000 Louisianians – almost 10% of the state’s population – were diagnosed with the virus, and far more were likely infected without ever getting a test to confirm their illness.
There were roughly 67% more known cases than there were in last summer’s delta wave, which had previously set records for infections and lasted a full month longer than the omicron surge.
And nearly four weeks later, when hospitalizations would have illuminated the potential human cost of such a large gathering, Louisiana is still in a good place, though most experts are tempering their optimism with the knowledge that another surge is likely.
“Where we are right now is objectively the best place we’ve been in the entire pandemic,” said Kanter. “What’s ahead, it’s tough to say.”
Statewide cases are at their lowest level since the first days of the pandemic, when testing was scarce and limited to those in the direst need of a diagnosis. Only 485 cases were reported in Louisiana for the week ending on Friday, about 1% of the number of cases reported in a single day during the peak of the omicron wave in late January.
And the trend seems to have staying power, for now. The last time the state reported more than 1,000 cases over the course of a week was for the seven days ending March 14. Even during prior lulls, the state hadn’t been able to maintain case counts that low for more than a few days at a time.
New Orleans itself saw what appears to be a very brief, minor uptick that likely can be traced back to Carnival. Cases had been falling rapidly since the omicron wave crested in the city at 6,087 cases per week on Jan. 25, hitting a low of 211 on Fat Tuesday. Exactly one week later, that figure had bumped up to 340, a small count by historic standards.
“It wasn’t much of a blip and it came right back down again,” said Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University.
After two weeks hovering in that range, case counts began to drop again last week. As of Friday, the city had reported only 136 cases over seven days, putting new infections roughly in line with other low points during the pandemic.
The metrics for tracking the most severe infections are also now at historic lows. Only 109 people were hospitalized with COVID on Thursday, continuing a 10-day streak in which hospitalizations have been at record lows. Only 8 people were on ventilators, typically only required for the most dire cases.
Deaths caused by the virus have also fallen to historically low levels, though delays in reporting often mean weeks-long delays in assessing their impact. About 1,635 people died during the omicron wave in Louisiana, just over half the toll taken by delta. Roughly eight new deaths were reported each day over the past week.
How long will the low last?
Over the short term, Louisiana can likely expect a couple more months of low cases and hospitalizations, at least through Jazz Fest in early May, said Hassig. But another surge is in the future, most health experts agree. The question is whether that will be due to BA.2, a cousin of an earlier version of omicron, or the next variant – a rho, sigma or tau, perhaps.
“I can't help but think we’re going to see something in summer,” said Hassig. “As it gets hot, people are going to go inside in the air conditioning. And we’ve had a spike the last two summers.”
The BA.2 version of omicron is gaining ground in Europe, where it’s causing an increase in cases. Some experts say that's not likely to happen in Louisiana. Omicron has infected so much of the population that it offers a buffer of immunity, said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at LSU Health Shreveport.
“Someone who has recently recovered from any omicron infection … they’re going to be resistant to infection from any previous variant, especially if they’ve been vaccinated,” said Kamil. “If you caught BA.1, you're unlikely to be a good home for BA.2.”
But that buffer may start to wane during the hottest parts of summer. At the same time, Louisiana’s large unvaccinated population – about 47%, compared to 34% nationwide – creates fertile ground for a new variant.
“We know that the virus is going to try to find a way out of the corner that our immune system pushes it into,” said Kamil. ‘We just don’t know what the next one will look like and how dangerous it’ll be when it finds its way out of that corner."