Lafayette's largest hospital has requested help from the federal government ahead of what's expected to be the largest surge in coronavirus patients since the start of the pandemic. The region's second-largest hospital has postponed inpatient surgeries and expects to skip phases of its surge plan to brace for an onslaught of new COVID-19 patients.

Even so, Mardi Gras parties and balls are expected to continue uninterrupted in the weeks ahead, which could prolong the fifth wave of the pandemic that's been fueled by the omicron variant.

"This is just, unfortunately, not the time for people to be gathering in big groups," said Dr. Tina Stefanski, the region's top public health official. "Hopefully we won't be here forever. We know we won't be here forever. We've been through this in four prior surges."

Stefanski spoke Thursday about the latest coronavirus surge during an online news conference alongside Dr. Amanda Logue, regional medical officer of Ochsner Lafayette General, and Dr. Henry Kaufman, chief medical officer of Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center.

The local health leaders did not directly answer a reporter's question about whether indoor Mardi Gras events in Acadiana should require masks or other mitigation measures like those implemented in New Orleans. Kaufman did say he personally knows of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the first Mardi Gras gatherings of the season.

"I think right now with the significant number of people in our community with COVID, the large percentage of positivity and the easy transmissibility of this omicron variant, until we see the numbers in the community come down significantly, I think any congregate gathering is going to potentially be a super spreader event in our community," Kaufman said.

About 97-98% of the new COVID-19 infections in Acadiana are now attributed to the omicron variant, Stefanski said. Although patient outcomes have generally been less severe than those during the delta wave last summer, the recent spike in new infections is predicted to put more people in the hospital than at the peak of the delta surge.

Louisiana hospitals are expected to need 4,962 beds by Jan. 27 for critically ill coronavirus patients, according to a projection by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. At the peak of the delta wave in August, there were 3,022 coronavirus patients hospitalized across the state.

Louisiana set its latest single-day record for infections on Wednesday with 17,592 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases. On Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Health reported another 14,932 infections. 

There were 2,081 patients with COVID-19 at Louisiana hospitals as of Wednesday; 216 of those were in the Acadiana region. 

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Ochsner Lafayette General had 111 inpatients who tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday across its network of hospitals in the region. Not all of those were being primarily treated for the coronavirus since the hospital system now tests every patient upon admission as precaution for staff, Logue said.

As of Thursday, 186 employees were out with COVID-19 across Ochsner Lafayette General's hospital system. That's nearly twice as many employees as at the peak of the delta surge, Logue said.

Lourdes, which does not do the same widespread testing for those admitted to its network of hospitals, had 71 inpatients on Thursday being treated for the coronavirus. Seven of those were hospitalized at Our Lady of Lourdes Women's and Children's Hospital; one was in the pediatric intensive care unit.

Coronavirus hospitalizations in Acadiana reached an all-time high of 409 patients in August during the delta wave. At that point, Ochsner Lafayette General Medical Center relied on help from the National Guard as COVID-19 patients overwhelmed resources. 

The hospital has again asked for federal assistance but has not yet been notified of approval, Logue said. 

"We have learned to be more proactive when it comes to requesting (help)," Logue said. "It's much easier to say, 'We don't need it anymore' than it is to wait too long to ask for it and not have the help you need."

At the peak of the delta surge, Lourdes was on the verge of rationing care as COVID-19 patients filled 60-65% of hospital beds. Kaufman said some inpatient surgeries have already been postponed as his team skips ahead in its surge plan to prepare for 75% of beds to be filled with coronavirus patients this time around.

"And that," Kaufman said, "truly, will put the community in a bad place."

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