Hospital leaders in Acadiana are pleading with the community to get vaccinated, wear masks and limit gatherings as their facilities and employees reach a breaking point.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is nearly 10 times higher now in the Ochsner Lafayette General system than it was a month ago, and the patient count continues to increase as the delta variant of the coronavirus spreads through the community.
"It has just been a sharp rise," said Dr. Amanda Logue, chief medical officer of Ochsner Lafayette General. "And we don't see the ceiling yet, which is the scary part."
Logue spoke to reporters in a joint media video call on Friday alongside Dr. Henry Kaufman, interim chief medical officer of Our Lady of Lourdes, and Dr. Tina Stefanski, medical director for the Acadiana region of the Louisiana Department of Health.
Together, the three doctors painted an alarming picture of what's happening inside of Acadiana's hospitals. The overwhelming majority of their current COVID-19 patients are younger and sicker than those treated during any previous surge.
Ochsner Lafayette General had just 10 COVID-19 patients in its system of hospitals one month ago. The number was at 85 on Tuesday and had spiked to 97 by Friday morning.
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Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center saw a similar trajectory, with a total of 70 COVID-19 patients as of Friday morning. All but two of those patients were unvaccinated, Kaufman said, noting the two vaccinated COVID-19 patients had significant underlying conditions.
"It's a younger population. It's a complete inversion, in fact, from our last big wave of the pandemic," Kaufman said.
"Our ICU is completely full of 30-, 40-, and 50-year-olds on ventilators right now."
Elective surgeries that require inpatient beds are being canceled at both hospital systems to make space for COVID-19 patients in non-traditional spaces of the hospitals. Even with extra beds, however, staffing remains the primary concern as patient counts continue to increase.
Urgent care facilities are just as full as the emergency departments of hospitals, Logue said. There has also been an overwhelming demand for monoclonal antibody infusions among unvaccinated patients who are sick with the virus but not sick enough to require hospitalization. Ochsner Lafayette General has three sites set up to administer the infusions and is in the process of setting up two more in an attempt to keep COVID-19 patients from becoming sicker, Logue said.
Until vaccination rates increase and COVID-19 cases decrease, the doctors are calling on local leaders to step up.
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Logue and Kaufman said the same safety precautions that were in place at this time last year should be embraced. Both said they support a mask mandate because data shows cases drop with mandates in place.
"People are continuing to have gatherings. That needs to stop as soon as possible," Logue said. "We have to act like we did last year, even though we hate it. We have to act like we did last year in order to shut it down because it will not stop, and we will not be able to sustain the volume if it continues to spread as fast as it is."
At this time last year, leaders announced the start of the school year would be postponed due to high community spread of the virus. When asked if that should happen again this year, the doctors danced around the question.
"I don't think that any of us are ready to talk about that," Stefanski said. "These are big decisions that need to be made by school systems, but I think again what the community needs to know is that we all have a part in helping these kids get back to in-person learning next year. And so just as we have a role to play in helping to protect our community's health care system, we also have a role to play in helping our kids get back to in-person learning. I think we know what to do — and no one likes it — but I think we need to again pull together."
Louisiana's fourth surge in COVID-19 cases has prompted more people to get vaccinated in Acadiana.
Demand for the vaccines at Lourdes clinics was greater than availability over the past two weeks. Kaufman said the hospital system is working to increase availability going forward to meet the community's demand.
It's a promising trend, the doctors said, but individuals who recently began the process are not fully vaccinated for two to six weeks after their first dose. The rate still remains concerningly low in Acadiana with just over 31% of the population fully vaccinated.
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Kaufman, Logue and Stefanski encouraged those who are hesitant to get vaccinated to ask more questions and for everyone to challenge those who spread misinformation. They've even had to debunk myths among their own employees in an effort to get more people vaccinated.
Both Ochsner Lafayette General and Our Lady of Lourdes have declined to share local statistics about their employee vaccination rates. Instead, Logue and Kaufman pointed to statewide employee vaccination rates that are just above 60% for both systems.
Neither system has mandated vaccines for employees, although Logue said the topic has been discussed and she expects to see more mandates by health care systems and providers in the future.
Kaufman said a health care provider recently told him a Lourdes employee had suffered a significant side effect involving blood clots from the vaccine. Kaufman said he immediately went to work to determine if that happened and was able to debunk the rumor. He took it a step further and reached out to local experts in thromboembolic events to determine if they'd treated any patients experiencing adverse effects from the vaccine.
"I couldn't find a single vascular surgeon, neurosurgeon or cardiothoracic surgeon in our community that has seen a significant thromboembolic adverse event from any vaccines," Kaufman said. "All of them, however, have seen significant thromboembolic events in otherwise healthy people with no risk factors other than having had a COVID infection. Thirty-year-olds with thrombosed aortas. Forty-year-old athletes with thrombosed legs. People with cardiomyopathies that we can't otherwise explain. A rash of atrial fibrillation, strokes, heart attacks. These are all very real, compelling, morbid diagnoses that we are seeing in our unvaccinated patients who have had COVID and not seeing in our vaccinated population."
Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines at ldh.la.gov/covidvaccine. Sign up for a vaccination appointment through Ochsner Lafayette General at ochsnerlg.org/mycovidvaccine or Our Lady of Lourdes at lourdesrmc.com/coronavirus/covid-19-vaccine.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many COVID-19 patients were in Ochsner Lafayette General’s system of hospitals earlier in the week. The correct count was 85 patients as of Tuesday. By Friday, there were 97 coronavirus patients, and by Saturday morning, that number had reached 119. The Acadiana Advocate regrets this error.