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'We’re not out of the first wave yet' | Avegno warns New Orleans about uptick in coronavirus cases after clusters found

Clusters of COVID-19 cases appear to have emerged from a large high school graduation party and from a large gathering outside the bars at Tigerland in Baton Rouge

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno gave additional details Saturday about recently discovered coronavirus clusters affecting city residents, including one traced back to a graduation party in Orleans Parish.

According to a statement from the City of New Orleans, a cluster of new COVID-19 cases appears to have emerged from a large high school graduation party and from a large gathering outside the bars at Tigerland in Baton Rouge.

Avegno said Saturday that at least 100 cases had been tied to the Tigerland cluster, although not all were in New Orleans.

At least 30 cases had been tied to the graduation party cluster. Avegno said investigators believe there were multiple parties for multiple high schools around the same time, where people were not social distancing.

Both clusters are affecting young New Orleans residents, according to Dr. Joseph Kanter with the LDH. In both cases, people were not wearing masks and were not social distancing.

The clusters were reported as the LDH sees an uptick in coronavirus cases overall, with more than 800 new confirmed cases reported Saturday. That increase is part of a rising tide of confirmed coronavirus cases. At the lowest point over the past month, Louisiana has seen case increases of 200-300. Over the past week, daily case increases have been closer to 700-800. 

Avegno said the "dangerous trends" could lead to drastic action, including a return to phase 1 or even a second shutdown. 

"If these trends continue, we may need to go back to more serious restrictions on activity," she said. 

Nationally, more than 100,000 people have died from the virus. In recent weeks, states such as Arizona have seen sharp rises in the number of cases reported. 

Avegno called the nationwide uptick in cases "incredibly alarming," especially when some of the states have had months to prepare. 

"Other places have had months to prepare for this, and yet they are rushing into opening headlong without considering the human toll, which is significant," she said. 

Without heeding her warnings about social distancing and avoiding activity that spreads the virus, Avegno said, New Orleans and Louisiana could be joining them. 

"In New Orleans, we have done remarkably well. If we can continue to do that, we will be the success of the nation," Avegno said. "But if we let up our guard, or if a few bad actors have large super-spreader events, it could take us right back to where we were." 

Other states hit hardest by the initial onslaught of COVID-19, such as New York, faced rapid spreading from people in close proximity at events and gatherings.

"This is how the outbreak started in places like New York," Avegno said. "That is the easiest way for just a handful of people to spread the virus very, very quickly." 

Contact tracing, which was cited by Gov. John Bel Edwards as the main reason for Louisiana to begin reopening in May, might not be working as well as he and other leaders had hoped. 

Avegno said that while contact tracers are reaching out, not everybody is responding. 

"They are calling as many people as they can," she said. "They are making attempts on the vast majority of cases." 

The results? Mixed. 

"They're getting variable help when they call," according to Avegno. 

Even the two clusters reported Friday weren't found out through contact tracing.  

"The majority of them were identified by concerned people in the community letting the health department know that this had occurred and that people had started to test positive," Avegno said. "The state only knows as much information as people tell them when the contact tracers call." 

Oftentimes, Avegno said, health officials might be the last to know about a cluster or outbreak. 

"This is New Orleans, and everybody knows everybody," she said. "I suspect that people in the community knew it almost at the same time as the health department did." 

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