COVID-19 rages in Louisiana, death toll nears 15K; Half of lions at New Orleans zoo have virus

Published 10:16 pm Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Louisiana’s COVID-19 death toll edged toward 15,000 on Wednesday, and the zoo in New Orleans said half of its lions had been diagnosed with the disease.

Five deaths reported Wednesday brought the state total to 14,983. And hospitalizations, after doubling in the week that ended Sunday, have risen nearly 47% since then to 659, the Louisiana Department of Health dashboard indicated. The state said the omicron variant accounted for more than 88% of cases.

The omicron variant caused an estimated 88.5% of all cases diagnosed during the week that ended on Christmas, up from 84% the previous week, the state Health Department said. The estimates are preliminary, it emphasized.

The three infected African lions are doing well and have normal appetites, the Audubon Zoo said in a news release Wednesday. Arnold, a full-grown male; Asani, one of two yearling males; and Kali, one of three females, were tested after they came down with coughs and nasal discharges. The other three are now being tested, the statement said.

“All symptoms have been intermittent and mild,” so no medication has been needed, senior veterinarian Bob MacLean said in a statement relayed by a zoo spokeswoman.

“We are prepared to start treatments if signs or animal comfort warrant,” he said.

The zoo said veterinarians don’t know how the lions became infected, but it’s likely that they got the coronavirus from an asymptomatic keeper in spite of numerous precautions.

Employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19, and those working with susceptible animals must wear N95 or KN95 masks, the statement said.

“Audubon Zoo has always had biosecurity protocols in place and adopted heightened protocols around susceptible animals at the onset of the pandemic last year,” it said.

The lion exhibit that opened in 2019 has a pretend rail station where the lions “can get fairly close to the public,” and barricades have been set up to keep people farther away from the rail cars’ glass windows, MacLean said.

The zoo began vaccinating its gorillas and orangutans in October, but the company making the animal vaccine against COVID-19 has not yet sent doses for the zoo’s big cats and for mustelids such as otters, the news release said.