As New York City—the epicenter of the novel coronavirus in the United States—struggles to keep up with tens of thousands of cases, smaller cities across the country are also witnessing an explosive growth of infected residents, quickly becoming new hot spots for the deadly disease.
Cities in Georgia, Louisiana, and Michigan have seen an alarming surge of COVID-19 cases over the last week, as over 6,700 new patients in their respective states make up more than 7 percent of all cases nationwide.
Nearly one out of every six cases in Georgia is in the Atlanta metro area, while infectious disease specialists say New Orleans now has one of the fastest virus growth rates in the country thanks to Mardi Gras celebrations in February. In Detroit, a city already plagued by financial strife, nurses and doctors have been forced to use “one mask” for their entire shift while treating patients with the virus.
“Right now, I think the biggest stress is not having enough beds for what feels like a tsunami of infected patients that will come here in the next couple of days. We’re scared of the anticipation of the unknown right now,” one Atlanta ER doctor told The Daily Beast. “I just don’t want Atlanta to be the next New York City.”
“If this isn’t a public health crisis, I don’t know what is,” a Detroit nurse added.
The United States now has more infected patients than any other country in the world—surpassing China and Italy—with over 86,000 cases of COVID-19 and 1,301 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
While that number continues to rise by the hour, hospitals across the country are understaffed, undersupplied, and unable to keep up with the rate of patients.
“Hot spots like Detroit, like Chicago, like New Orleans... will have a worse week next week than what they had this week,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams warned on CBS This Morning on Friday. “The virus and the local community are going to determine the timeline. It’s not going to be us from Washington, D.C. People need to follow their data, they need to make the right decisions based on what their data is telling them.”
In Atlanta, home to nearly half a million people and the headquarters for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every bed in intensive-care units has already been filled.
To date, Georgia has 1,642 confirmed cases, a staggering number that has increased by 472 percent in the last week. Among the 56 people who have died in the Peach State, 40 were living in Atlanta.
Atlanta’s largest hospital, Grady Memorial, was already down at least 220 ICU beds after a destructive flood in December, and now has just 100 beds for patients, a hospital spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
“We are staying at capacity, especially with all the missing beds,” the spokesperson said, noting that all virus patients are being quarantined in an “appropriate place” elsewhere in the hospital while the facility scrambles to make up for the lost space. “That being said, we’re good on supplies right now.”
Local Atlanta officials are concerned that the situation could lead to a total collapse of the state’s health-care system—unless money and resources arrive quickly. According to the Atlanta ER doctor, “the worst for Georgia is yet to come.”
“So far, we still have supplies, we still have doctors who have not yet fallen sick to the virus but it’s only a matter of time until our luck and resources run out,” said the doctor, who has been working with coronavirus patients over the last week. “It’s nerve-wracking and frustrating to know that as doctors, there’s only so much we can do to help without getting the funds and federal backing. We’re going to get overwhelmed soon, and fast.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has already issued a city-wide shutdown to try to flatten the curve of residents contracting the coronavirus—but the state has not followed her lead, which could contribute to the flood of new cases.
“People have to understand that when we overrun our health care—our hospitals—that people will still come in with heart attacks, people will still have car accidents,” Bottoms told CBS46 this week. “These things that happen every day on top of COVID-19 will make our healthcare system collapse in the same way that you’re seeing that happen in New York and you’re seeing it happen across the globe.”
Meanwhile, two states away in New Orleans, officials are seeing an unexplainable growth rate of new cases that is faster than any city worldwide—putting it on track to be the next national epicenter.
“It putters along and you think you’re OK, then it starts to go up a little and then it goes up in an exponential way,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said in a CNN interview, adding that New Orleans officials have been caught off guard by the virus’ spread. “That’s what’s happening in New Orleans now.”
As the largest city in Louisiana—which currently has 2,304 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 83 dead—New Orleans accounts for more than half of the state’s death toll and over 60 percent of infected residents.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards predicted the city of 363,000 will reach its health-care capacity on April 4. In an attempt to curtail the spread of the virus, Edwards is among 22 state officials who have implemented an emergency “stay-at-home order,” forcing residents to remain inside except when they need to retrieve essential supplies and exercise.
But while New Orleans has a struggling health-care system, a high rate of residents with pre-existing health conditions, and a robust cruise industry, health experts point to one event as the main contributor for the cluster cases: Mardi Gras.
“Anything that brings together a large number of people from a variety of different places, including places that have already been confirmed to have COVID-19 cases, increases the probability of the virus being transmitted,” Dr. Timothy Brewer, a UCLA professor of epidemiology and medicine, told The Daily Beast. “So that’s the whole reason there is a ban on large scale events and the recommendation not to travel unnecessary. Mardi Gras does fall under that category of a large-scale event that attracts people from all around the world.”
Just 13 days after the open-air party in the French Quarter—which attracts about a million people every year—New Orleans confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 9. Within two weeks, the number of cases jumped to 567 and continued to double over the next three days.
Since then, at least six “clusters” have emerged in nursing homes across the city, and hospitals are already facing shortages of ventilators and other essential medical equipment like masks, gowns, and hand sanitizer.
“New Orleans is preparing to mobilize in a way we hope we will never see again in our lifetimes,” New Orleans Homeland Security Director Collin Arnold said, adding that hospitals will need additional beds within weeks. “This disaster will define us for generations.”
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell defended her decision to allow Mardi Gras to continue as planned in an interview with CNN on Thursday, insisting that federal officials never warned her against it.
“No red flags were given,” Cantrell said. “If we were given clear direction, we would not have had Mardi Gras, and I would’ve been the leader to cancel it.”
In an effort to help the crisis, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees announced on Thursday that he is donating $5 million to a host of charities throughout Louisiana that will deliver meals to those in need. “I’d say hang in there and maintain hope,” Brees told TODAY host Hoda Kotb on Friday. “We’ve been through a lot of tough times together, whether it’s hurricanes, oil spills, floods, and this is just another one of those bits of adversity that we’re gonna come out better on the other side.”
Hoping to piggyback on that message of hope is Detroit, a city that’s seen a nearly tenfold increase over the last two weeks.
Michigan has seen 3,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and at least 60 deaths. In response, some medical institutions are being used as “relief” hospitals—offering 10 percent of their bed capacity to other facilities that have already been overwhelmed with virus patients.
Detroit, which includes three counties, accounts for 84 percent of the state’s cases and all but eight of its deaths.
“I think it is fair to say we will see increasing case numbers and increasing strain on the healthcare system nationwide, but especially in highly populated areas,” Brewer said. “I think clearly all these areas need more resources so anything they can do to expand what they already have will be helpful.”
In a harrowing draft letter circulating online, one of the Detroit-area’s prominent hospital systems is already preparing for how to prioritize patients when resources and equipment inevitably run out. The Henry Ford Health System letter presents a sobering scenario in Detroit, as it spells out in blunt terms that resources may have to be saved for those with the best chance at survival.
“Patients who have the best chance of getting better are our first priority,” the letter addressed to patients and their families states, before noting that those with pre-existing conditions may be ineligible for critical care. “Patients will be evaluated for the best plan for care, and dying patients will be provided comfort care.”
A spokesperson for the Henry Ford Health System told The Daily Beast the letter is part of a “large policy document developed for an absolute worst-case scenario” that is not yet active. He stressed that all affiliated hospitals are not currently at capacity with coronavirus patients.
One Detroit nurse told The Daily Beast that her hospital is already suffering from a lack of resources that puts her health, and the health of her patients, at risk. She said her biggest fear is still the possibility that she may be spreading the virus to other patients without their knowledge.
“I have one mask for my entire shift,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t even use it because I want to be able to keep it as sanitary as possible for patients I am treating who may have the coronavirus. It’s absolutely terrifying to go into work when I know soon I may have only one mask left.”
Dr. Joneigh Lhadun, the state’s health department chief medical executive, said in an interview with CNN, that she has heard of doctors and nurses in the Detroit area “putting their mask in a paper bag” before taking them out to help patients.
The crisis is only just beginning for many American cities, Brewer said, adding that the inevitable surge of cases will likely continue for at least the next two weeks. He estimates that the virus will reappear in another reiteration in the future.
“Hopefully one of the good things that will come out of this is that local, state, and the federal government will recognize that need for a more robust public health system,” he said, adding that he also hopes the government officials realize “this country needs strong public health systems.”