Hurricane Laura Could Become a COVID-19 Superspreader as Storm heads for Hotspots Texas and Louisiana

As weather-watchers warn residents on the Gulf Coast can expect "potentially catastrophic" damage from Hurricane Laura, scientists say large-scale evacuations may also cause a second major issue: a surge in COVID-19.

Tracking the massive storm currently heading in the direction of Texas and Louisiana, the National Weather Service (NWS) has forecast "life-threatening" conditions are now imminent—citing storm surges, flooding and winds that have topped 100 m.p.h.

It's latest advisory has warned the storm is "rapidly intensifying" and is expected to hit eastern Texas and Louisiana by tomorrow. "As Laura moves across the country, heavy rainfall will occur from the Gulf Coast, to the Mississippi Valley, and east into the Ohio Valley. Flooding and flash flooding is likely," officials said in one advisory.

Updates: See the latest warnings via the NWS website and its Twitter account.

Bracing for impact, more than 500,000 residents in the region—including Beaumont, Galveston, Port Arthur and Calcasieu Parish—have been told to flee their homes and seek shelter. According to the Associated Press, Texas officials have urged residents impacted to stay with family or in hotel rooms to avoid coming into contact with others and reduce the risk of contracting, or spreading, novel coronavirus.

"We are responding to Hurricane Laura while also responding to a pandemic," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a news conference yesterday, CNBC reported.

"Just because a hurricane is coming to Texas does not mean COVID-19 either has or is going to leave Texas. COVID-19 is going to be in Texas throughout the course of the hurricane," he added, saying authorities are "fully aware" of the situation.

He said hundreds of busses will be used to help those who are evacuating and officials will aim to ensure distancing while making disinfectant equipment available.

COVID-19 has hit Texas hard, statistics from local health officials showing that it has logged over 586,000 confirmed cases and more than 11,000 deaths. In Louisiana, the disease has been tied to over 144,000 cases and at least 4,700 deaths.

With masses of residents forced on the move, there is a chance evacuees' "origin and destination counties" could see a rise in cases as a result, one recent study by scientists from Columbia University and Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) suggested.

The paper, a version of which was released earlier this month, was the first to "quantify how hurricane evacuation may affect" COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

Researchers said they built a hypothetical evacuation in which residents of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties fled a Category 3 hurricane.

The study assumed 2.3 million people would leave the four counties and was based "on previous studies of evacuation compliance and behavior," the team said, noting that post-Hurricane Irma surveys were used to simulate where people would go.

The study, which is awaiting publication in a peer-reviewed journal but released as a pre-print, revealed an analysis of "historic evacuation patterns and virus transmission rates" indicated COVID-19 cases could spike by up to 61,000.

On the flip-side, however, if evacuated residents moved to areas with low transmission rates the study's data suggested additional cases could be kept under 10,000.

"Ultimately, the number of excess COVID-19 cases produced by the evacuation depends on the ability of destination counties to meet evacuee needs while minimizing virus exposure through public health directives," the pre-pint paper read.

"Many of the country's most hurricane-prone states have recently experienced some of the highest COVID-19 growth rates in the nation," commented one co-author, Kristy Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"In every scenario we analyzed, hurricane evacuations cause an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. Minimizing that increase depends on getting people to destinations with low virus transmission rates and ensuring that those transmission rates stay low even when there's an influx of evacuees," Dahl added, according to a release.

In an online helpsheet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises residents impacted by hurricanes to make a "go kit" including items that can protect against COVID-19, including hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and face masks.

Hurricane Laura
Residents wait to board a bus as residents evacuate ahead of Hurricane Laura at the Island Community Center on August 25, 2020 in Galveston, Texas. Hurricane Laura is expected to hit somewhere along the Gulf Coast late Wednesday and early Thursday. Callaghan O'Hare/Getty