The death toll from coronavirus in the United States shot past 5,000 on Thursday, with New York still leading the country in sheer number of deaths and cases.
But another virus hotspot has emerged with a per-capita death rate twice that of New York City.
That hotspot is New Orleans, and the city's high levels of obesity may be part of the problem, says Dr. Rebekah Gee, who until January was the health secretary for the state of Louisiana.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) LSU HEALTHCARE SERVICES CEO, DR. REBEKAH GEE, SAYING: "Poverty, obesity and chronic disease are connected.
Obesity helps cause diabetes, which helps cause kidney issues, and we know that the coronavirus attacks kidneys.
And obesity is also linked to heart disease, heart disease is also linked to poverty.
So all of this leads to the perfect conditions for chronic disease, and what we're learning about this virus is that it is opportunistic and that it is very deadly to people who have multiple organ disease." New Orleans residents suffer from obesity, diabetes and hypertension at rates higher than the national average, conditions that doctors and public health officials say can make patients more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Some 97% of those killed by the disease in Louisiana had a pre-existing condition, according to the state health department.
Diabetes was seen in 40% of the deaths, and one in four were obese.
Dr. Kyle Happel is a critical care physician at LSU Health New Orleans.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) LSU HEALTH NEW ORLEANS CRITICAL CARE DOCTOR, KYLE HAPPEL, SAYING: "We think that a lot of the organ dysfunction that we see in this COVID syndrome is the result of excessive systemic inflammation.
We know that folks that are obese a lot of times have markers in their blood and a lot of times systemic inflammation." The New Orleans area, which so far has reported 115 deaths as of Wednesday, could be a harbinger for the potential toll the pandemic could take in other parts of the South and Midwest that also have high rates of obesity and related ailments.