Louisiana parish has highest death rate per capita for COVID-19 in the country
LAPLACE, La.- With a population of 43,000, St. John the Baptist Parish has the highest death rate per capita for coronavirus in the country.
The parish surpasses some of the most densely populated urban hotspots that are also being greatly affected by the deadly virus.
St. John the Baptist Parish sits among a collection of chemical plants and oil refineries that align along the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Due to the air pollution, environmental activists have nicknamed the parish, along with its neighbors, "Cancer Alley." Now, officials are concerned about the parish being known for an unusually high COVID-19 death rate.
"It feels like what we went through with Katrina," said Geri Broussard, owner of the Baloney Funeral Home in LaPlace. "It fills every space in your life, like the sky is falling."
Broussard said the funeral home is not overwhelmed yet, however, it is seeing twice the intake it normally would in a month.
The Louisiana Department of Health reports as of Thursday afternoon, there are 609 cases, 47 deaths, 17 state tests, and 659 commercial tests in the parish.
The numbers are "tremendous" for a parish this size, said Dr. Christy Montegut, the parish coroner. "This virus is just overwhelming people," he added. Montegut has worked at the coroner's office for 32 years and has run a primary care practice in town for nearly 40 years. "It's just been a real surge, like an onslaught."
Like most, the vast majority of the people who died from coronavirus had underlying health issues such as hypertension, kidney disease, diabetes and obesity, according to Montegut.
So far, he has only seen a couple of COVID-19 victims who also had cancer.
Activists who have been frustrated by the air pollution in St. John the Baptist argue the correlation to a high coronavirus death rate could not be clearer.
A recent nationwide study by Harvard found a small increase in long-term exposure leads to a large increase in the coronavirus death rate.
"We are suffering at this great percentage because ...(of) the battle we have been in for years in our systems," said Robert Taylor, Jr., who leads the group called Concerned Citizens of St. John, which has been targeting a chemical plant in LaPlace, formerly owned by DuPont for decades and now owned by Denka.
Taylor led a safe, socially-distant protest Saturday outside a parish government building. Speakers wore masks and gloves, wiping down a megaphone in between turns.
"We are dying at unprecedented numbers right here in St. John."
The group prayed with their gloved hands outstretched and then marched around the parking lot, singing.
"If you're breathing in these chemicals every single day it automatically affects your immune system. COVID attacks mostly people with low immune systems. Those are the people that are dying," said George Handy, Sr., a member of Concerned Citizens of St. John.
The Environmental Protection Agency released a report in 2015 that drew attention to the parish after finding higher than expected levels of chloroprene in LaPlace. Chloroprene is a chemical classified by the EPA as a likely carcinogen in humans. The agency says the chemical in St. John could potentially be of concern, but it's still doing more monitoring in the area, CNN reports.
Denka, the second largest employer in St. John, spent $17 million to reduce emissions by 85% in 2017.
"Denka Performance Elastomer's operations do not have any impact on health outcomes or COVID-19 sensitivity," said Jim Harris, spokesperson for Denka. "In this critical time, it is important to look to our state and federal health officials for guidance. Health data suggests illnesses including diabetes, hypertension and obesity to be linked to COVID-19 mortality. DPE's operations are in no way related to these illnesses and health data show no negative health impacts resulting from DPE's operations."
Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University, has been studying the coronavirus data coming out of St. John and other river parishes.
"It certainly gave me pause, because it was so high. And then I looked at all the parishes near it, and they were also elevated," she said. "In epidemiology, we call that an ecologic correlation. So it's a big factor that connects and fits a pattern. But unless we can make the connection at the individual level, it's not something that we can really act upon."
She said it is worth studying whether air pollution in the parish makes people more susceptible to COVID-19, however, she noted other factors must be taken into consideration.
In addition to air pollution, some argue testing was limited in St. John early on, and residents were not complying well with social distance measures. A curfew was put in place on April 1 because of this.
Antoine Jasmine, a pastor and traveling speaker based in LaPlace, said some people in the community initially brushed it off as something that would come and go, much like the hurricanes and floods so familiar in this part of the country.
"Then eventually it shot up like a rocket. People started dropping dead. Three people turned into 10," he said, sitting in his church where he's been preaching in recent weeks on a live stream to an empty room. "That's when I believe the fear of what's really going on shocked."
The pastor lost both of his parents to coronavirus on Good Friday. They passed within two hours of each other.
Jasmine said his family began social distancing early on, soon after his parents grew ill in mid-march. The last time he was able to see them was at a church service in their usual front row seats.