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Mardi Gras may have been the perfect breeding ground for coronavirus, experts say

The Mardi Gras season checks many of the boxes that scientists say act as an incubator for this fast moving virus to spread.

NEW ORLEANS — Statistics on the corona virus outbreak show that New Orleans has become a hotspot for the epidemic. Experts are now studying the dynamics and timing of the local surge and finding definitive links to Carnival.

The Mardi Gras season checks many of the boxes that scientists say act as an incubator for this fast moving virus to spread, starting with the timing,

“I think the timing is definitely right,” said Dr. Richard Oberhelman, chair of the Global Community Health Department of Tulane’s School of Public Health.

When Carnival season peaked on Fat Tuesday three weeks ago, there were no positive cases in Louisiana. As of Tuesday, the number of positive cases in New Orleans alone climbed 116, placing the city among the worst in the country per capita for the outbreak.

Oberhelman said the very nature of Carnival made New Orleans a virtual petri dish for a local outbreak.

“Besides the fact that you have people from all over the world, what do you do at Mardi Gras? You go to parades,” Oberhelman said. “And some of those visitors were from places like Italy, France and Asia, where the virus was already spreading before we saw it here.”

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From parades to the shoulder-to-shoulder scrum of Bourbon Street, Oberhelman said the celebration is tailor-made for community spread.

“There's a lot of close personal contact. So that's the perfect opportunity for spread of viruses,” he said. 

Dr. Ronald Blanton, chair of the Tropical Medicine Department of Tulane’s School of Public Health, says experts will be studying the Covid-19 pandemic for decades. But even though the statistics are changing minute-by-minute, in New Orleans, the evidence pointing to Carnival as a factor is mounting.

“I have to admit, the concentration, and it's a really strong concentration here in New Orleans, may suggest that,” Blanton said.

Now these experts are recommending – and practicing – techniques to limit personal interaction. Tulane launched on-line instruction this week and faculty are now communicating through virtual meetings.

“Web conferencing in order to do things so people are not in direct contact with one another, which is the opposite purpose of Mardi Gras,:” Blanton said.

The epidemic has become such a fertile topic for research, Tulane is launching a daily newsletter on the virus called “Tulane Daily Outbreak.”

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