Sarah Koerber, an intensive care unit nurse at Lafayette General Medical Center, has seen her parents three times since mid-March. She's hugged them once.

She told them last week to stay at the cabin in West Virginia where they'd been vacationing for a month because returning home to south Louisiana was too dangerous.

It's not just because they're at high risk of complications of the novel coronavirus. It's because they're in danger of not having anyone to care for them if they require hospitalization for any other reason.

"The reality of the health system right now is that because of how many COVID patients we have, the hospital can't handle any other illnesses or sicknesses that may happen," Koerber said. "If my dad had a heart attack tomorrow, and he needed to have open-heart surgery, if he went to the Lafayette General emergency room, there's a very good chance he couldn't stay there for heart surgery. If he's lucky, he can be sent to the Heart Hospital. If he's not, he may be shipped out of state. I don't even know if we could handle broken bones right now. That's the situation we're in."

It's not space so much as personnel that's the problem. And it doesn't look like the situation will be improving anytime soon.

As of Monday morning, a total of 181 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus at the hospital's main campus. It represents about 6% of the 2,800 employees who work for Lafayette General. Employees are tested if they are symptomatic, not on a widespread level, according to hospital spokesperson Patricia Thompson.

Lafayette General

Lafayette General staff wear photos of themselves so patients can see their faces while they're in full personal protective gear.

The total number isn't as concerning as the rate of new cases among employees, which Thompson said is a result of community spread at large. Two months ago, just 20 employees had tested positive for the virus. One month ago, the total employee count was 40. Now, the number has grown to nearly 200.

It's put a greater strain on the already strained staff.

"We're working with staffing agencies, and we have very, very dedicated nurses working extra shifts and overtime," Thompson said. "We know, as dedicated as they are, that level of intensity is not sustainable. We continue to plead with the community to follow the mask mandate and social distancing guidelines."

Thompson said hospital administrators are cautiously optimistic that coronavirus cases are plateauing in Acadiana since there hasn't been an increase in patients in a few days.

Even so, there's a growing frustration among local medical professionals about how the community is responding to the state's mask mandate and the second wave of coronavirus cases in Acadiana.

Koerber has kept mostly quiet on social media about what she's seen in the hospital since the pandemic started. It was a viral video claiming doctors are ignoring a known cure for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, that inspired her to write a heartfelt post about what's really happening.

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Sarah Koerber

"I think lately, hopefully by a minority and not a majority, we've felt less supported," Koerber said. "We're feeling very inundated and bombarded by the level of COVID and then there's people not agreeing with whether it's real or a hoax or a political or conspiracy thing."

Her Wednesday post has been making the rounds locally on Facebook, as has another passionate post — a letter sent by the chief medical officer of Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center to hospital staff.

Although Dr. Henry Kaufman IV didn't intend for the letter to become public, Lourdes officials have confirmed its authenticity. 

Kaufman said the number of COVID-19 patients spiked Monday morning at 82, and admissions continue to outpace discharges. More nurses and team members are becoming sick each day, he said.

"I have no reason to believe that this wave of cases will abate anytime soon and anticipate that we will continue to care for large numbers of COVID + patients for the foreseeable future," he wrote. "As a result, I fear the recent trajectory of cases will deplete the medical resources of our community."

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Henry Kaufman MD speaks during a press conference to deliver the latest information regarding Covid-19 on Wednesday, July 9, 2020, at City Hall in Lafayette.

Kaufman pleaded in the letter with hospital staff who might not be seeing coronavirus patients firsthand to take the crisis seriously and ensure their friends and family are doing the same.

"I am confronted daily by individuals in our community who believe that the pandemic is a hoax, that it is politically motivated, that things are not as bad as the media portrays," Kaufman wrote. "If anyone doubts it, I invite them to accompany me personally on a tour of our ICU and the COVID units. There you can see for yourself patients in their second, third and fourth decade of life with minimal to no comorbid conditions struggle to breathe in the ICU alongside those we would expect to be most severely impacted by the disease. This disease is NOT affecting just those with significant medical comorbidities."

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Sarah Koerber is pictured in full personal protective equipment at Lafayette General, where she works as an ICU nurse. 

Kaufman also wrote that in order for schools to open responsibly, "hospitals must have some reasonable capacity to care for the surge in cases which will follow the children's return to school."

Teams are working shift after shift with little rest, according to Lourdes spokesperson Elisabeth Arnold. Hospital administration is providing meals, washing scrubs, subsidizing child care and praying with employees.

It will take community support to help the medical professionals survive the pandemic, however.

"Where other places have allowed science and reason to guide their actions, the curve has been flattened and the disease has been suppressed to the point where routine personal and commercial activities have resumed," Kaufman wrote. "Here in our community, there has been much resistance to common sense measures and we are reaping the rewards of our obstinance."

Even though morale is low and employees are exhausted, Koerber said she's witnessed so many beautiful moments from her team at Lafayette General.

Nurses have decorated a patient's room with Star Wars images and have gone to the store to buy watermelon at a patient's request. They've cried alongside patients who can't see their families, and they've cheered for patients who were discharged after months in the hospital. 

Her colleagues have become her support system.

Koerber said the community seemed to support their efforts until Easter, but support has steadily dwindled since then.

"People are just kind of over it," she said. "But health care workers are over it too. We would all like COVID to be over and be a thing of the past, and we're just not there yet."

Kaufman ended his letter with a directive to staff.

"We all went into medicine out of a sense of the common good, to heal the sick and to ease suffering," Kaufman wrote to his staff. "Currently our community is sick, the disease is ignorance and misinformation and you my colleagues, are the cure. The patient requires your attention. Act."


Email Megan Wyatt at mwyatt@theadvocate.com.