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Masks recommended (not mandated) indoors as New Orleans COVID cases rise

Director Jennifer Avegno said that reported coronavirus cases have increased five-fold in the last month.

NEW ORLEANS — Now is the time to head off a COVID-19 surge like the one that swamped area hospitals last summer, the head of the New Orleans Health Department said Tuesday.

Case counts average 155 a day, five times higher than a month ago, and wastewater tests show increased coronavirus concentrations in both residential and tourist areas, Dr. Jennifer Avegno said. She noted that many people use home tests, so the case count “is a big underrepresentation.”

She asked city residents and visitors to mask up in indoor public spaces, get tested if they have been exposed to someone with the disease and — if appropriate — get treated.

“We’re not surprised at a summer surge. This is the third year in a row,” Avegno told a livestreamed news conference. “But none of us want to have the surge we did last year” from the delta variant.

She said the city is not ordering masks, and noted that many residents followed previous recommendations.

“Short term but widespread indoor masking can return to not needing masks much quicker,” she said.

Wastewater testing for coronavirus concentration, new since last summer, let the city “see this coming and predict the rise in cases and mobilize resources more quickly than we have in the past,” Avegno said.

“We think we have time at this point to get ahead of it” and prevent a surge like the one last July and August “when our hospitals were completely overwhelmed," Avegno said. "So we're going back to the basics — testing, masking, vaccination and now treatment, which is something new.”

Pills to treat COVID-19 are widely available and can greatly reduce the risk of mild to moderate symptoms worsening to the point of hospitalization, but must be taken early and need a doctor's prescription, she said.

“If you don’t have a doctor or the doctor can't be reached ... a backup can be a test-to-treat clinic. Make a quick appointment, get tested, walk out with Paxlovid if it's right for you,” Avegno said.

The city only has two such clinics but hopes to have more soon, she said.

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