BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The number of COVID-19 patients in Louisiana hospitals has dropped below 1,000 for the first time since late March.
The Louisiana Department of Hospitals reported Wednesday that 931 patients were hospitalized. According to its data, there were 927 hospitalized on March 28, and the figure jumped to 1,032 the next day.
The 110 patients on ventilators Wednesday was the lowest since March 25 — the second day for which the state coronavirus website shows such reports. It showed 94 patients needing mechanical help to breathe on March 24 and 163 on March 25.
The number of hospitalized patients peaked at 2,134 on April 13, while the highest number of ventilated patients was nine days earlier, with 571 on April 4.
More than 35,300 cases have been reported in the state and 2,485 people have died from the disease.
Three outbreaks reported this week were at crawfish farms and processing plants. People close to the crawfish business told The Advocate they are not surprised since workers live and work close together.
“It’s like a house with a family in it,” farmer and processor David Savoy told The Advocate. “If one person gets it, there’s a good chance everyone’s going to get sick. That’s just the reality of the situation.”
State health officials said this week that 100 people at three Acadiana crawfish facilities have been infected by the novel coronavirus. They wouldn’t identify the businesses, saying they are private and are complying with department recommendations. They are in Lafayette and Acadia parishes, said Tina Stefanski, the Louisiana Department of Health Region Four director.
Savoy said his farm and factory, near Church Point in Acadia Parish, have not been affected.
Such businesses rely on workers from Mexico and other countries for seasonal harvesting and processing.
Workers on H-2B visas make up as much as 70% of the processors’ staffs, said Maria Bampasidou, an assistant professor of agriculture economics and agribusiness at Louisiana State University.
Many such workers and those on H-2A visas at crawfish farms rent trailers or dormitory-like housing from their employers.
Close working quarters have fueled outbreaks at slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants across the country, noted Dr. Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, an associate professor of epidemiology at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans and a former epidemiologist for the state health department.
With crawfish facilities, she said, “the problem is they’re living together.”
One outbreak was at a crawfish farm with “dormitory-like settings,” Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health, said Monday.
Republican state Rep. John Stefanski of Crowley said he wasn’t surprised by the outbreaks. “It’s the nature of the industry, especially with crawfish peeling plants,” he said. “It’s people working in very close quarters as well as living in the same area.”
Producers say they have taken pandemic precautions. Savoy said his plant is regularly sanitized and workers’ temperatures are taken.
There’s no way to build new housing quickly enough to space out workers, he said, but workers are away from people who don’t live near the rural plant.
Sabina Hinz-Foley Trejo, lead organizer for the Seafood Workers Alliance, said the virus has intensified numerous labor problems in the crawfish business. Workers don’t get hazard pay and have limited access to clean masks, she said.
“It’s elbow to elbow,” she said. “No shields. In some places, no masks.”
The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an advocacy group that launched the Seafood Workers Alliance, said workers must risk their pay and housing to speak up, the “perfect recipe for unsafe working conditions going unreported.”
Straif-Bourgeois, the epidemiology professor, noted that the crawfish themselves don’t pose any risk.
“I would urge everyone to eat crawfish and boil them,” she said.