From the Editor: Where we go when we can't go anywhere
Suddenly, we have a new place to be.
If a hurricane is in the Gulf, you know where we’ll be at 7, 10 and 4, a.m. and p.m. We’ll be on the National Hurricane Center website, nhc.noaa.gov.
And now, if it’s noon, we’re at the Louisiana Department of Health website, ldh.la.gov/Coronavirus, at noon. That’s when the Office of Public Health posts the new COVID-19 statistics every day.
During a hurricane, we watch cones. Now we’re watching numbers.
By watching the numbers, we’ve been able to see how the disease has spread across the state.
The numbers don’t say much about the suffering of COVID-19 patients, or the mourning of 582 families that have lost a loved one. They don’t offer much for kids who know something is going on but are too young to understand it, or for high school and college seniors who wonder when they can start their adult lives.
The numbers tell us nothing about the anxiety a whole state feels about our physical, mental and financial health.
But, in a way, numbers are the story. The public health response has been school closures, social distancing, surgical masks and limits on crowd sizes. It’s all about “flattening the curve,” or prolonging the spread of the disease enough to prevent hospitals from being swamped.
It would be helpful if we knew the ending, or how long this story will be. It would help if the story was just more clear.
A story on this page about Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Tuesday press conference makes that point. With a big percentage of the state’s brainpower at work on figuring out COVID-19, there are still things we don’t know.
—Why do African Americans account for 70% of the state’s coronavirus deaths so far? Edwards noted that after he spoke of the racial disparity Monday, the same phenomenon was reported in big cities up north. He also said the earliest hot spots in Louisiana tended to be in areas with big black populations.
But that just pushes the question down the road. We still don’t know why.
—Sometimes we see a big daily increase in one number or another. On Tuesday, it was in reported deaths. Seventy deaths, the biggest daily increase total so far, were recorded between noon Monday and noon Tuesday.
This gets complicated because commercial labs, which handle most of the testing now, are swamped. The backlog means results can take a week or more. That applies even to people who have died, tests for whom are sometimes performed only after they die.
If we see a big jump in the daily numbers, does it mean the disease is spreading more rapidly, or that we’re just getting relatively old results on top of new ones?
—Edwards frequently says at his press conferences that the two statistics that matter most in predicting COVID-19’s course are hospitalizations and deaths. So what does that mean on a day like Tuesday, when hospitalizations rose relatively little and deaths jumped sharply?
Those are the things the experts are working on while we work on doing what we can: wearing masks, maintaining a 6-foot distance between yourself and others, obeying stay at home rules and other regulations, and practicing good hygiene.
If you read history, or watch a lot of BBC documentaries, you may have stumbled across this bit of irony:
In the 1840s and 1850s, wave after wave of cholera swept through England, killing thousands each time. And no one at the time knew why.
People speculated about a lot of possible causes. Some thought bad smells caused cholera. That made sense, because the Thames River was London’s sewer. It stank.
But a doctor named John Snow — not the “Game of Thrones” character — thought there might be a different connection with water. And as he poked around in death statistics, he turned up a couple of companies that delivered water to London homes.
One of the companies, Southwark and Vauxhall, drew water from a badly polluted portion of the Thames. The other company did what it was supposed to and drew water from a cleaner area of the river.
Snow discovered that the number of cholera deaths in Southwark and Vauxhall homes was 10 times greater than in the homes that got water from the other company. The mystery of cholera began to unravel. Now we know that the disease is spread through exposure to water contaminated by sewage or dirty laundry.
The name of the company that sold the safer water was Lambeth Waterworks Co.
When COVID-19 came to Louisiana, the first real hot spot was a New Orleans senior living facility called Lambeth. Fifteen of the residents have died of COVID-19, including former Saints kicker Tom Dempsey.
Bill Decker is managing editor of The Daily Review.