The sharp rise in coronavirus cases has nearly tripled the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Baton Rouge region from the lows reached in mid-June.

But hospital officials offered differing assessments on how that increase is affecting their systems and what it may foretell for the coming weeks as more newly infected people seek medical care.

Baton Rouge General and Ochsner Health System have seen some increase in patients and their officials aired concerns about those trends but said they currently are well off the worst of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Our Lady of the Lake officials have seen a three- to fourfold increase in admissions of COVID-19 patients in the past 10 days, and one top medical official predicted, if trends continue, the stress on the region's medical facilities could be worse than the surge in March and April that prompted the statewide state-at-home order.

That official, Dr. Catherine O'Neal, suggested that OLOL due to its size in the Baton Rouge market has received the brunt of case increases so far but the other medical systems may be soon to follow as people who have recently been diagnosed become new patients.

O'Neal, chief medical officer of the large nonprofit hospital system, said the daily pace of admitted patients, around 10 to 20 per day, is about what it was like during late March when the pandemic first gained significant traction in the state. At that time, she said, it had felt as if someone had "turned the faucet on" as COVID-19 patients were showing up in the emergency room.

"And it's striking," she said Friday. "It started last Wednesday. It's just been this steep uphill climb since then."

The hospital had 79 COVID-19 patients as of Friday morning, including 24 in intensive care. 

New cases of the novel coronavirus have increased in East Baton Rouge Parish after the state entered Phase 2 of eased social distancing measures on June 5. The case total since the outbreak began approached 6,750 by Friday.

State regional hospitalization data doesn't exactly match the entire capital area, but the region that includes East Baton Rouge, Ascension and West Baton Rouge parishes has seen hospitalizations rise from a post-peak low of 55 patients on June 19 to 150 patients Friday. 

The rise in cases and hospitalizations has caught OLOL and other Baton Rouge-area hospitals in the middle of a return to elective surgeries and other procedures that have helped refill their beds with more typical medical patients. 

For OLOL, that means the hospital system doesn't have the same spare capacity — and staff — that it did in March and April when hospital systems halted those procedures and focused staff on the then-surging number of COVID-19 patients.

O'Neal said that back then, people who didn't have COVID-19 were afraid to go to the hospital. Without those other patients, the regional hospital system was able to double the number of intensive care unit beds from 90 to 180 and redirect nurses who typically performed other duties.

"Today we have a lot of patients in the hospital who just need regular non-COVID care, and are not as afraid and they need that care and so they're here," O'Neal said.

Calling the system "very full" with 676 beds filled, O'Neal said she doesn't believe those typical patients can be reduced to recreate another 180-bed COVID unit because they had already put off care previously.

"And so I can tell you I feel much more uncomfortable today about our bed numbers than I felt like in March and April," she added. "We have no room to grow now."

Officials at Baton Rouge General described a major increase in recent weeks of people going to their outpatient clinics with illness from the virus but who generally weren't sick enough to be hospitalized. Only recently have some of those numbers turned to a more significant rise in people seeking hospital admissions for COVID-19. 

Stephen Mumford, chief operating officer of BRG, said most of the people showing up at clinics were younger than 30 or in the 30- to 49-year-old age group.

"That's the first big uptick we saw, and that's been going on for the better part of two to three weeks now," Mumford said. "And then this week we started to see more hospital admissions for COVID. Nothing like where we were back in April."

By late April, BRG had close to 170 COVID-19 patients. As of Friday, it had 40 COVID-19 patients, with six in the ICU.   

BRG's experience tracks what state officials have been saying about the recent rise in cases and the discovery of outbreaks at bars, graduation parties and other gatherings frequented by a younger population less likely to face severe illness from the virus. Since June 5, about 31% of all new cases in Louisiana has been among those 18 to 29.

Dr. Ralph Dauterive Jr., vice president of medical affairs for Ochsner Baton Rouge, said the health system's Baton Rouge facilities and related clinics have also seen more asymptomatic patients who are in the younger demographic.

He said hospitalizations for COVID-19 have only recently started to trickle in, but he aired some of the same concerns as officials at OLOL about trying to balance COVID-19 patients with a greater number of patients with more traditional medical needs.

"You're starting to see the pressure that gets put on the system when it's trying to run normal operations if you throw the pandemic in on it again. That's the real concern right there," Dauterive said. 

Through Friday, Ochsner Baton Rouge had about 15 COVID-19 patients and around 70 to 75 patients with other medical needs. The hospital system in Baton Rouge is operating at around 110 beds, though it's licensed for 154, Dauterine said. 

Earlier in the pandemic, the U.S. Navy had helped staff extra beds at BRG's Mid City campus to help handle the extra load of COVID-19 patients.

Those people are gone, but O'Neal said she believes the upwardly trending case numbers are pointing to the need for another emergency medical space. She said she believes the health care system could be overwhelmed again "just as bad, if not worse, as April."

"Now I can hope that I'm wrong, but I don't have any reason to think that I'm wrong. We're seeing the exact same trend," she said. 


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.