With novel coronavirus infections reported in New Orleans, local nursing homes are limiting social trips, hospitals are adjusting visitor policies, schools are preparing for potential prolonged closures and the city’s jail is screening incoming arrestees, officials told New Orleans City Council members on Wednesday. All said they are increasing cleaning of common surfaces. 

Officials from a variety of hospitals and city agencies, including city schools, nursing homes, the jail and the airport updated a city council committee Wednesday with the precautions they are taking and response plans in light of the now six cases of the coronavirus in the New Orleans metro area. 

Councilmembers Cyndi Nguyen, Jason Williams, Helena Moreno and Joe Giarrusso listened and questioned several city agencies and service providers in a series of updates over two hours. There were dozens of people at the meeting, where heads turned in the Council chambers each time someone coughed and a man sat in the front row with a bottle of hand sanitizer equipped with a hand-pump. 

As the meeting opened, Williams noted that how city agencies, specifically the jail, handle the virus would be emblematic of the health of New Orleans. 

“In New Orleans, we don’t have a prison, we have a jail. Which means most people are there pretrial and the lion’s share of people are coming back out into the community,” he said. “So how we deal with infectious diseases in close quarters there will dictate how healthy we are in the community.”

In the United States, cases topped 1,000 this week and more than 30 people have died, according to the Washington Post. The majority of deaths occurred in Washington state. Unlike the flu, children appear to be affected at a lower rate than seniors.  The virus has now been confirmed in 38 states and Washington D.C., reports the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Louisiana has seen six presumptive positive cases, all people who live in the New Orleans metro area, including one who lived in an Uptown retirement home, according to NOLA.com.

When announcing the first presumptive confirmed case in New Orleans on Monday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the case was not related to travel, meaning it was acquired in the community. 

Howard Rodgers, the executive director of the New Orleans Council on Aging, which provides services to seniors, encouraged older residents to wash their hands more and purchase extra non-perishable food and extra prescription medication so they can limit public contact in the event of more identified cases. He also encouraged them to get flu shots in order to limit flu-related hospital visits at a time that hospitals could be strained. The city has 74,000 residents over the age of 60, he said. Estimates on mortality rates have varied, but the elderly are particularly at risk. 

Rogers then noted, for example, that a high school reunion was occurring today. “That is a problem,” he said, noting he didn’t have control over the event. But he said it will also give the council a good gauge of how many people attend. 

That was a common theme throughout the meeting, a term people are calling “social distancing” or encouraging people to limit their time spent in public and public interactions.

Nursing homes reduce social gatherings, hospitals prep for possible staff quarantines

Representatives from nursing homes said they are limiting social gatherings and adjusting visitor policies, while noting sanitization is well within their area of expertise already. Hospital executives from Ochsner and LCMC Health told the council they were also limiting visitors and taking extra precautions for staff and patients. At least two hospitals run by LCMC Health — Touro Hospital and University Medical Center — are treating patients who are considered presumptively positive for the virus. 

One concern they had was the quarantining of hospital staff who came into contact with the presumptive cases creating potential staff shortages. It’s not easy to replace doctors, and some hospitals may have trouble with supplies.

“We were already a bit behind in the industry because of some recalls of surgical gowns,” prior to coronavirus concerns, said John Heaton, LCMC’s chief medical officer. “So we kind of started at a disadvantage with gowns.”

Screening for inmates, jail visitors

Staff from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, including Sheriff Marlin Gusman said they have plans to address the virus in both staff and inmates, and have provided training, but did not address whether there were any presumptive cases at the jail. 

They are screening inmates and visitors, but it’s unclear what exactly that entails or whether the jail’s pre-existing medical screening procedures have been updated for the coronavirus. 

Gusman introduced his Health Services Administrator Nina Jo Howard who developed the jail’s plan.

“This includes screening at the door when law enforcement brings in a detainee,” she said, noting they would not refuse a symptomatic detainee.

“We are also working on screening our guests and volunteers,” she said.

“Is that going to be a Q and A about their health?” Williams asked. 

“Right a screening, just like with a detainee,” she said.

Administrators said should any detainee being released need to be quarantined, officials would ensure they had housing. “We ensure the individual is being released to a living situation to ensure quarantine is possible.”

“We’ve shared our plan with the court,” Gusman said.

Trial days, jury pools to be reduced

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Criminal District Court is making policy changes to address the risk of coronavirus transmission. Court officials did not appear at the meeting. But Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik told The Lens that starting next week the court will be reducing the number of jurors it calls in from 225 to 120, and jury trials will only be held Monday through Wednesday. Normally, they are held on Thursdays as well.

The changes will go into effect this Monday, Kazik said, and will be a two-week test—the length of time a jury panel is required to serve. Following the two weeks, he said they would revisit and see where the city stands. 

He also said hand sanitizer was being handed out to the various court departments, and that the custodial department is wiping down all public surfaces at least three times a day. 

Asked if they had considered suspending jury service altogether, Kazik said he thought that would be “premature.”  

“We are trying to follow the lead of the governor and the mayor’s office,” Kazik said, “and of course we want to do whatever we can to accommodate the condition as well.” 

Schools plan for potential closures

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour presented Wednesday. 

“Currently, we’re focusing on social distancing and self quarantining for faculty or students who have traveled” to countries with warnings,” Delcour said. “As we move forward we are now focusing on how to react to positive cases.”

“We are currently monitoring absenteeism of students in families,” she said. “Beginning Friday, that report will be coming daily.”

Schools must also establish procedures for how and when to send home students or staff members who have flu or cold-like symptoms and create plans in the event schools are closed for a prolonged period of time. Schools will have to provide those plans to the district next week. 

“As the situation evolves and as presumptive positives are identified we have to make sure we are focusing on planning for potential closure,” she said. “If anyone has contact with a presumptive case we are asking them to stay home for two weeks.”

But the bigger question for the district remains should a presumptive positive be identified in a student, staff or faculty member. In that case, Delcour said, the district would work with the city and state health departments to make a decision on school closure. If schools close, that would likely require plans for distance learning, or working from home, which means schools must consider who has access to devices and the internet. 

“This will become one of the asks of the city,” she said. “Not all of our families, especially our low-income families, have access to reliable internet.”

Williams said he was glad she brought that up.

“This crisis shows the importance of making sure all of our kids have access to the internet regardless of their socio-economic status,” Williams said. “Because if we do pivot to distance learning there are some kids who are going to get left behind. Hopefully this will be the spark that we need to address those issues.”

Should schools close, Delcour said the district also has a public access television channel that could be utilized as one option in delivering lessons. 

“We are focused on planning for potential prolonged closures — whether it be site specific or systemwide,” Delcour said. 

“We are also asking schools to revise their sick leave and paid time off policies,” she said. 

The Orleans Parish School Board will meet Thursday morning to discuss coronavirus preparations. 

‘Are they asking us to stay six feet from everybody?’

The council members also asked questions of health professionals.

“Are they asking us to stay six feet from everybody? Say you’re at an event or party,” Giarrusso asked. “In New Orleans, god bless us, that’s really a challenge for us.”

Heaton said that wasn’t exactly the case, but that avoiding prolonged close quarters, such as a parade where people may be packed shoulder to shoulder, would reduce people’s risk. He also recommended consulting the Center for Disease Control guidelines. 

Other agencies are also taking precautions. The airport is increasing cleaning of frequently high-use surfaces, like handrails. New Orleans Rapid Transit Authority is also increasing cleaning.

“Every 24 hours our equipment is completely cleaned,” an official from RTA said, adding that now vehicle interiors are sprayed down each evening as well. “We’re going to continue that on a daily basis.”

Nicholas Chrastil contributed to this report.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...