Together/Alone: Coronavirus Heads to Main Street, USA. Is it Ready?

Normally, about a dozen people a day come to the emergency department at Baton Rouge’s largest hospital with breathing issues. 

Now, it is about 100. 

“Ten-bed ICU (Intensive Care Unit), we filled that up,” Scott Wester, CEO of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, told me towards the end of last week.

“Another ICU — 12-bed — we filled that up. Another ICU area we just filled up with I think it was 16 patients. Across every given couple of days, we have to build another ICU space to meet the demand that’s coming in.”

I wanted to see what was happening in Baton Rouge because with about 225,000 people, it’s a mid-sized city that would be familiar to millions of Americans. It’s a place eclipsed by national Coronavirus coverage from New York or even New Orleans, which has nearly 1,000 cases and 65 deaths as I write this.

Mardi Gras festivals in Southern Louisiana in January and February are seen as key in spreading the virus quickly. 

Mardi Gras crowds in New Orleans, February 25, 2020. (AP)

“It’s the opposite of six-feet rule,” said Dr. Craig Castleman Greene, vice chief of staff at Our Lady of the Lake. “And there are people lining the streets, shoulder to shoulder, sharing beer, drinks, casting beads around. And so if you can think of a way to incubate, Mardi Gras would be perfect.” 

There are 33 Coronavirus patients at Our Lady of the Lake now; three people have died.  The hospital, which is also the largest in Louisiana, learned from treating patients evacuated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It is also stable for the moment when it comes to respirators and protective equipment.

But it is already “the definition of busy” right now, Wester told me – even as more – perhaps many, many more — desperately ill patients are expected.

And if other cities and towns across the U.S. aren’t prepared, local hospitals will be overwhelmed. 

“What message do you want to send to both people in your profession — and also regular Americans as this makes way across the country to medium-sized cities like Baton Rouge?” I asked Wester.

“My perspective is ‘Don’t underestimate the spread of the disease, regardless if you think that social distancing over the last week is going to prevent things.’ It’s a long incubation period. It takes time to have symptoms. And every community around the country is going to experience it.”  

Were you prepared for this? 

“I remember hearing distantly about China – Wuhan, then the Seattle patient,” Wester said. “I would say I miscalculated how quickly a pandemic could spread across the country. 

“We have great disaster preparedness, we have great plans,” he continued. “For health care, I’ve kinda termed it — it’s an extraordinary, complicated puzzle in which a couple of the pieces have fallen to the floor, and you just don’t know which piece fell.”

Lent is a major season in heavily-Catholic Louisiana. Our Lady of the Lake is part of the Franciscan Missionaries. 

Good Friday is usually a crawfish boil, with staff off and families gathered.

“We’re a loving state and loving people that love to hug each other,” he said.  “When we have social distancing, that’s an extraordinarily hard thing for Louisianans.”

Wester said he couldn’t yet answer whether a quarantine should be lifted by Easter, as President Trump says he desires.

“Right now, until you see relief, you have to believe it’s only going to continue to grow at 10 to 20 percent per day.”


SELF-DEPRECATION: A microscopic organism is reconciling humanity’s abundant self-regard with its jarring fragility. It’s serving us all a heaping dose of humility. And so as we watch our hair grow unruly and our dependence on elastic waistbands grow, let us now turn to the great tradition of making fun of ourselves.

The award so far goes to Eric Phillips, a New York City political consultant. His Twitter feed is a compendium of cooped-up single life in the city: alphabetizing his five-spice spice rack; chalkboarding his spare dinner menu; praising sweatpants. “It is what it is,” he writes me, without a hint of woe-is-me. Bravo. And bon appetit!


BUDS ON TREES: Brief walks, thankfully, are not off-limits in quarantined areas — provided you keep 6 feet away from people not in your isolation group. For kids and adults alike, I suggest a few moments admiring the metamorphosis on tree branches, especially if you’re in more northern areas. Leaves and flowers are just starting to peek out, a welcome promise of life and hope.