A 24-year-old Lafayette nurse and a 30-year-old Eunice pastor died over the weekend after seeking hospital treatment for COVID-19, according to social media posts from friends and family.
Their untimely deaths have highlighted Acadiana's divide over coronavirus vaccines, sparked lively debates and raised important questions at a time when their loved ones are still grieving.
"This is now the face of what we are seeing in our community," Dr. Britni Hebert, a Lafayette internal medicine physician, said in a Monday interview. "And that is no longer the 70- and 80-year-old grandparents that are suffering and dying from COVID. These are 23-year-olds. They're 15-year-olds. They're 35-year-olds. They're young parents.
"They are people with decades left to give to their life, their family, their community. That is an unspeakable loss, and it was preventable."
Ochsner Lafayette General issued a statement Monday after a nurse who worked in the hospital's emergency room died over the weekend.
Olivia Guidry regularly treated COVID-19 patients as an emergency room nurse at Ochsner Lafayette General Medical Center, and Michael Pappas led youth summer camps as staff director of the Acadian Baptist Center in Eunice.
Although there has been a lot of public speculation, many details remain unclear about the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Family and friends of both Guidry and Pappas have confirmed their positive COVID-19 test results and hospitalization in social media posts, but their official causes of death have yet to be confirmed.
It also remains unclear if Guidry or Pappas were vaccinated prior to being diagnosed with COVID-19 or if they spread the virus to others in their care.
The director of the Acadian Baptist Center did not return a reporter's phone message Tuesday for this story. Pappas was critically ill with COVID-19 and pneumonia at a Lafayette hospital as of July 5, according to a Facebook post that included an update from the pastor's father. He died on Sunday, according to a Monday Facebook post by the Acadian Baptist Center.
The CEO of Ochsner Lafayette General issued a statement Monday evening in response to Guidry's death, noting the cause will be determined by an autopsy.
“We are extremely saddened by the loss of Olivia Guidry, a registered nurse at Ochsner Lafayette General Medical Center," CEO Al Patin said in a prepared statement. "She was a beloved member of our hospital family and dedicated to taking care of every patient who entered our emergency department."
A nurse at Ochsner Lafayette General has died from complications from COVID-19, according to social media posts from friends and co-workers.
Guidry's sister Brittany Smith wrote in a Facebook post that Guidry was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early July, spiked a high fever and had a seizure. Guidry was placed in a medically induced coma on Thursday and died on Saturday.
Her death has sparked debate on social media because Guidry shared anti-vaccine rhetoric on her Twitter account in 2020.
"This vaccine has been released using recombinant DNA faster than any vaccine in the world. It manipulates your DNA at the tiniest molecular level. Do. Not. Get. It. It's not safe," Guidry wrote in a July 2020 tweet.
She also tweeted in July 2020: "Am I the only one thinking they are trying to see how much they can control us? We are a straight-up social experiment."
Dr. Frank Courmier, an intensive care unit physician at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center, said virtually every COVID-19 patient he's treated in the past few months has not been vaccinated.
"We've had almost no vaccinated patients admitted," Courmier said in a Tuesday interview. "I think we've had one total for as far back as I can remember. All these patients currently right now are unvaccinated."
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The number of coronavirus patients at Lourdes doubled in a week, Courmier said, after months of relatively low, stable counts. He attributes the recent spike to the region's low vaccination rate, the delta variant's higher transmissibility, and the relaxation of pandemic precautions such as masking and social distancing.
There were 80 COVID-19 inpatients at hospitals across the seven-parish Acadiana region as of Monday, which is the most since mid-February. That was exactly double the number of inpatients two weeks earlier, a rate of increase resembling the weeks leading up to the July 2020 peak of 304.
Dr. Tina Stefanski, medical director for the Acadiana region of the Louisiana Department of Health, said she's concerned about the delta variant and recent COVID-19 stats, especially because more than two-thirds of the region's residents remain unvaccinated and people are gathering more frequently without masks or other safeguards against the virus.
They were fishermen, artists, basketball coaches, bus drivers.
"I'm definitely concerned that if we don't do something to change the course, we're just going to continue on the same course," Stefanski said in a Tuesday interview. "The good news is we've been here before, but the difference is that now, we have a very effective intervention, and that's vaccination."
About 34% of Lafayette Parish residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which is slightly higher than the 30% rate for the Acadiana region, according to Health Department statistics. Louisiana lags behind most of the country, with about 36% of residents fully vaccinated, compared with the national average of about 49%.
The delta variant is now the dominant coronavirus variant in the United States and in Louisiana. Epidemiologists are especially concerned about the variant because it appears to be more easily spread through limited interactions. The variant's transmissibility also means a greater percentage of the population would need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity, Stefanski said.
Lourdes is seeing younger patients who require longer hospital stays as a result of the delta variant's quick spread through unvaccinated people in the community, according to Courmier.
"It's certainly starting to make us worried that we may be heading towards a surge," Courmier said. "These patients are generally much younger, and we all get the feeling that they're sicker and requiring a lot longer hospital length of stay."
Thus far, COVID-19 vaccines have been effective in preventing serious illness or death from existing strains of the virus. If the virus continues to spread and mutate through unvaccinated people, however, it's only a matter of time before there's a variant that is resistant to the existing vaccines.
"We will eventually have a variant that is not covered by this vaccine," Hebert said. "The longer we have a large portion of our community unvaccinated, the more the virus gets to play and practice faster, and the sooner we get the variant that breaks through the vaccine, the sooner we get the next strain that is stronger and more capable of hurting our bodies.
"There is a risk to each unvaccinated person, and there is a risk to our community and our region and country for having low vaccination rates. There's layers of risk and consequence of not having more people vaccinated."
Hebert said it's been difficult to combat misinformation on social media to convince patients and the community that the COVID-19 vaccine benefits far outweigh the risks.
"We are very bad at comparing relative risks of choices," Hebert said. "The most dangerous part of your COVID vaccine is the drive there. You are so much more likely to end up in a bad car accident on the way to your COVID vaccine than you are to experience any bad effects from the vaccine itself. Ibuprofen has at least 1,000 times more deaths under its belt than the COVID vaccine."
Stefanski said there's been an increase in vaccinations in the Acadiana region over the past two weeks. That's likely due to a combination of factors, including the state's Shot at a Million cash incentive campaign, the rollout of vaccines in doctors' offices, and a community ambassador who debunks myths surrounding vaccine hesitancy.
Stacy Conrad, an ambassador with the Department of Health's Acadiana region, regularly visits workplaces where the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks is greater to encourage staff members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
"I just try to meet people where they are and go over the most heard hesitancies or myths, the most shared social media posts," Conrad said in a Tuesday interview. "Then I give them the accurate information and put it in a way that everybody can understand, whether you're a physician all the way through a member of the maintenance staff."
An unvaccinated person who takes a chance against the virus might as well play Russian roulette, Hebert said.
Courmier agreed with the Russian roulette analogy.
"It's like a 100-shot revolver and you got one bullet," Courmier said. "The chances are kind of low that you're going to have a problem, but why pull the trigger? We can just put the gun down."
Courmier has seen many of the community's sickest COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic. He said it's been more difficult to witness patients suffering from the virus in the hospital's ICU since the vaccine has been widely available.
"We know it didn't have to be this way," Courmier said. "Before, it was heartbreaking, no doubt, but it was all we could do. Now, we can do something about it and it becomes even more heartbreaking when they come in and they have previously refused the vaccine. We're stuck in this nightmare."
Staff writers Kristin Askelson and Ben Myers contributed to this report.