Although COVID-19 has spread throughout the world, Louisiana has somehow fallen victim to the fastest growing rate of confirmed cases. We know how easily it spreads, and numbers have skyrocketed in the past weeks. As test distribution increases, case numbers are bound to go up, but deaths from the virus have risen too. As of March 29th, there have been 151 confirmed deaths and around 3,500 positive cases in Louisiana, with almost half of those reported in New Orleans alone. This particular form of the virus is new and therefore not as well understood as other forms of coronavirus that have been known since at least the 1930s. However, we believe that it functions by binding to the ACE2 receptors within the cells on our lungs, releasing genetic material and tricking the cells into replicating the virus. It is when the immune system fails to hold up its defenses that the respiratory system goes under siege.
There has been a lot of discussion hailing Mardi Gras festivities as the reason for the rise of cases in New Orleans. Tourists travel from far and wide into the city in February to celebrate -many could have carried the virus with them and exposed locals. However, if people in Louisiana were not victimized by devastating health factors, the severity of the spread might be more manageable for hospitals.
We’ve seen plenty of discussion about the elderly and those with underlying health conditions most at risk. The elderly have been touted as the most vulnerable population overall – the older we get, the greater there is a chance for us to acquire a physical problem as our environmental and genetic factors continuously compound. However, we’ve also seen the numbers of people between ages 20-60 skyrocket, much to the public’s surprise. People within this age bracket are also at risk for respiratory issues and lung conditions, heart problems, cancer, diabetes, and general autoimmune issues.
When someone is healthy, the immune system will quickly identify a threat, prepare for an attack and eliminate the pathogen naturally. It will then be primed to identify that pathogen in the future and create a barrier against it. As the importance of the microbiome in the gut, functioning as our second brain, has come to the attention of scientists and doctors, the connection between it and the immune system has also been brought to the forefront. According to researchers at John Hopkins University, a huge portion of the immune system is found in the GI Tract. Here are a few factors that contribute to the destruction of the microbiome and immune systems in many Louisiana residents, and reasons we may be so at risk.
STRESS AND TRAUMA
Stress is known to be a leading cause of reduced immune and gut function. When stressed, our white blood cell count decreases and so does the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens (like COVID-19). We become extremely susceptible to infectious attack. The stress hormone corticosteroid also has the ability to suppress the effectiveness of the immune system. Stress can lead us to resort to other coping mechanisms such as drinking, smoking or consuming unhealthy foods which all contribute to failed immune response. While stressed, our adrenal glands are on edge while our brain functions 24/7 in fight-or-flight mode.
A major stressor, poverty, is rampant in Louisiana. Our poverty rate is the highest in the nation, and has rippled through generations. Minimum wage has failed to increase in over 20 years, staying set near the federal level, despite the rising cost of living. Louisiana is also a right-to-work state, meaning that very little barriers are set in place to protect employees. Residents will regularly work 12 hour days with no overtime and very few breaks. Many do this nearly every day of the week. They may have to take public transportation to get to work or make sure children are taken care of, leaving very little time for sleep or self-preservation. A large portion of New Orleans residents rely on the gig economy and tourist ventures in order to survive, which are known to be economically unstable and lack benefits. People anxiously await their paychecks which are gone instantly to bills. Many people sit in massive amounts of debt. A portion of residents are houseless. Levels of violence in the city are high. Amidst the virus, some of these factors have been intensified.
Those facing the most dire of these circumstances are people of color, whose stress is further compounded by racism – it’s institutionalized and deeply embedded in the history of the city. See The Color of a Pandemic: COVID-19, Poverty and Race. There is huge wealth divide in New Orleans between white residents and communities of color, largely Black communities. Black residents are still experiencing not only the historical effects of colonization and enslavement, but the consistent effects of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina caused flooded infrastructure and loss of housing, massive health declines, deaths of loved ones and increased poverty rates for the Black population in the state. People have not been given the tools to lift themselves from these traumatic circumstances, and new challenges (such as this pandemic) will trigger and compound traumatic experiences. This intensifies the fight-or-flight mode response. When placed in a consistent state of stress as so many residents are, the immune system can struggle to protect us. Online resources, like BetterHelp, are available to anyone in need of mental health help during these traumatizing times.
Those exposed to high levels of pollution are also significantly at risk for decreased immune response and increased viral attack. The area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River, currently known as Death Alley, is home to over 200 chemical plants and factories. This area is the second-largest producer of petrochemicals in the country. A major facility producing chloroprene, a known carcinogenic chemical, lies only half a mile from a local elementary school.
People along the river are 50 times more likely to get cancer than the average American. It has been touted the “frontline” of environmental racism, affecting predominantly Black communities yet again. Death Alley is saturated with a wide range of individuals who fall under the category of “high-risk” due to pre-existing health conditions from toxic environmental exposure. Income is generally low and proper healthcare is inaccessible to most. There is significant challenge for community members to produce the resources to move out of Death Alley or even prepare for social distancing during a viral pandemic (including extraneous income or grocery stockpiles). Studies show that not only does air pollution weaken the individual’s immune system, but a weakened immune response is passed to their children genetically too. Respiratory issues skyrocket in areas where fresh air is unavailable, which can directly impact a person’s ability to handle COVID-19 and its attack on the lungs. The Mississippi River also contains the most concentrated source of glyphosate, the chemical used as a pesticide that is produced by Monsanto. Glyphosate causes unbelievable destruction to the lungs and gut, naturally decreasing the potential to fight off viral infections. Glyphosate is also found in tap water, and in the majority of food products on grocery shelves.
FOOD AND UNHEALTHY HABITS
The health of Louisiana residents is heavily impacted by food traditions and access to fresh produce. Products such a meat, dairy, sugar, sodium, gluten and forms of saturated fat are known to trigger inflammation in the body and halt the cells that attack harmful bacteria and viruses. These products are significant contributors to high cancer and heart disease rates as well as the majority of other health problems. This must be considered in a place like Louisiana where food culture often marked by these ingredients is so deeply imbedded in the history as well.
Due to recent trends worldwide in cleaner, health-oriented living, there has been more discussion about the impact of food on mental and physical medical conditions. However, access to this awareness and the ability to alter lifestyle choices is deeply connected to racial and economic privilege. When eating out, healthier restaurants tend to be costly in comparison to fast-food options, and places like Whole Foods are known gentrifiers. 83% of parishes in Louisiana contain neighborhoods labeled as food deserts. This means there is low access to grocery stores that contain fresh and healthy ingredients. This is a serious problem when fruits and vegetables must comprise a majority of the diet in order to receive proper nutrients, minerals and fiber. A lack of nutrients, minerals and fiber is known to halt the growth of good bacteria in the gut; products like sugar, dairy and gluten are known to feed bad bacteria. If the gut is unhealthy, the immune system within the GI tract is at risk. In regards to COVID-19, fruit contains antioxidants and flavonoids that improve lung function. Cruciferous vegetables reduce the risk of respiratory inflammation. Fiber and whole grains will decrease general inflammation that lowers immune system response. All of these foods will contribute to a healthy GI tract.
Factors such as drinking and smoking are significant indicators of poor health as well, and prevalent within the state. Statistics show that nearly 30% of Louisiana residents smoke cigarettes daily, and they are most likely to make less than $25,000 a year. Smoking causes consistent inflammation of the respiratory system and lung complications, which can be intensified with the presence of COVID-19. Drinking culture is also a huge facet of life in New Orleans and around Louisiana. Alcohol converts to sugar in the stomach which is again known to decrease gut health and lower immune response.
A myriad of circumstances have potentially contributed to the severe rates of COVID-19 cases in Louisiana, as well as other parts of the world. As the prevalence of the virus expands daily, the hope is that more understanding of its functioning arises and accessible prevention measures slow the numbers. These potential factors may lend evidence to rates and support to steps moving forward.
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