Story at a glance
- Out of a little more than 43,000 people living in St. John the Baptist Parish, 47 have died.
- The small, rural parish has no hospital, with residents traveling to neighboring parishes for testing.
- Some are blaming pollution from nearby chemical plants and oil refineries.
A little more than 43,000 people live in St. John the Baptist Parish, La. Since the coronavirus outbreak reached the parish 30 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, 569 of the residents have contracted COVID-19 and 47 have died.
With 108 coronavirus-related deaths per 100,000 people, St. John the Baptist Parish has the highest death rate per capita for the disease in the country, according to analysis by The New York Times.
"It feels like what we went through with Katrina," said Geri Broussard, owner of the Baloney Funeral Home in LaPlace, told CNN. "It fills every space in your life, like the sky is falling."
The residents, nearly 60 percent of whom are black, have been under a statewide stay at home order since March 23. But restaurants, bars, casinos and movie theaters have been closed to patrons since March 16, when the first presumptive case of COVID-19 was reported in the parish. There are no testing sites or hospitals on the parish's 213 square miles of land, so patients have to travel to one of two neighboring parishes if they suspect they have the disease.
There is one Walmart and a few doctors offices in LaPlace, the largest city in the parish with an average household income of $54,821. Much of the rest of St. John the Baptist is swamps and wetlands, with Lake Maurepas to the north, Lake Pontchartrain to the east, Lac des Allemands to the south and the Mississippi River running right through the middle.
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The wetlands were mostly sugar plantations for much of its history, including during the largest slave insurrection in U.S. history in January 1811, half a century before the Civil War began. Now, chemical plants and oil refineries sit along the river, which is known as "Cancer Alley," between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Some blame the high death rate on the high levels of chloroprene, a chemical classified by the EPA as a likely carcinogen, in the area.
"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," George Handy, Sr., a member of Concerned Citizens of St. John, told CNN.
Denka, the second largest employer in St. John, told CNN their operations are not related to the parish's high COVID-19 mortality rate.
Christy Montegut, a doctor who has worked at the coroner's office for 32 years and has run a primary care practice in town for nearly 40 years, told CNN many of those who died also had underlying health issues.
"This virus is just overwhelming people," he told CNN. "It's just been a real surge, like an onslaught."
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