The northern half of Louisiana has been identified as one of the most vulnerable areas in the U.S. to a coronavirus outbreak and an area that is highly susceptible to producing variants, according to a new study by researchers at Georgetown University.
The analysis identified 30 total hotspots around the U.S. where vaccination is low and the population is high enough that there is a good chance for interaction.
Of the top five areas where researchers are most confident the risk is high, the zone that covers Louisiana — including 29 parishes and Monroe, Alexandria and Shreveport — is the “most significant,” said lead researcher Shweta Bansal, an associate professor of biology at Georgetown.
“If I were to rank them, that would actually be the first one,” said Bansal.
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The other four clusters straddle borders in surrounding states, including Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
In the past two weeks, four of those states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee — have seen cases increase around 100%.
Five counties in Arkansas have seen hospitalizations increase by 240% to 950% over the last 14 days. In Missouri, soaring hospitalizations led to the deployment of a federal COVID-19 surge team as open hospital beds dwindled.
While the southeastern United States has some of the lowest vaccination rates, there are many pockets in the country where vaccinations are lagging, such as the Dakotas and Nevada, Bansal pointed out. What makes these five pockets different is the possibility for an encounter that would spread the virus quickly through the community.
“Humans don’t just interact with each other randomly,” said Bansal. “These are not just places with low vaccination coverage, but also an expectation of significant interactions with each other.”
The findings show how the concept of herd immunity, in which the virus can no longer spread or mutate because there are not enough unprotected hosts, is of local significance.
“It’s the story of two Americas. Some hospitals are closing down their COVID wards; some hospitals are opening them up,” said Charles Stoecker, a vaccine policy expert at Tulane University. “It’s just a totally different experience based on where you are.”
In the 29 Louisiana parishes identified, vaccination rates average around 26%, far below the national rate of 47.8%.
In places where vaccination is low and interaction is high, the virus has more chances to mutate into something that might bypass current vaccines.
“Every time it moves from one person to another person, it’s an opportunity for a new variant to develop,” said Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University. “This is what viruses do. When they have the opportunity to spread, they will continue to mutate.”
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Viruses spread by replicating. Sometimes an error is made during this replication process, known as a mutation. Most mutations are inconsequential. But every so often, as in the case of the now-dominant Delta variant, a mutation makes the virus more successful in infecting cells, and a variant is born.
So far, the vaccines have been a good match for the variants. But the fear is that a future variant would develop characteristics that allow it to evade the vaccine’s protections.
“Tomorrow we might not be so lucky,” said Bansal. “The next variant that emerges, maybe our current vaccines won’t be effective against. That would be like turning the clock back to 2020.”
The analysis did not take into account how often people in those parishes move around or actually interact, though a future study will measure mobility, offering a clearer picture of how a virus might sweep through a community and the surrounding areas.
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But considering that delta, the dominant variant in Louisiana and its neighboring states, is more transmissible and evidence is growing that prior infection does not protect against it, public health experts suggest taking the vaccination rate of the surrounding population into account when assessing personal risk.
“If you’re in one of these zones, you may not want to wait for some public health or political authority to make a decision for you,” said Hassig. “You may want to take relatively easy steps to protect yourself, which is wearing a mask in public, especially inside.”
Emily Woodruff covers public health for The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate as a Report For America corps member.
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