The first doses of a coronavirus vaccine are being distributed in Louisiana, but an increase in hospitalizations and confirmed cases in the Baton Rouge area is a reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
Between Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Our Lady of the Lake Medical Regional Medical Center and its affiliated facilities admitted 19 new patients with COVID-19 in one 24-hour period. That's the most since the summer surge in viral cases in Louisiana.
The OLOL hospitals in Baton Rouge and Gonzales had 88 patients as of early Friday, which is nearly double the number on Nov. 19, officials said.
As the long-awaited rollout of the Pfizer vaccine began last week and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of a second vaccine, Louisiana and the Baton Rouge area continued on a sharp rise in cases that started after Halloween, area hospital, epidemiological and state health officials said.
With people finishing their Hanukkah celebrations and preparing for Christmas and New Year's, officials urged people to hang tough with social distancing measures and avoid large family gatherings for the break — despite fatigue from the months of restrictions, the hope that the arrival of vaccines has brought, and the emotional pull of the season.
Dr. Robert Peltier, chief medical officer of North Oaks Health System in Hammond, said he and his siblings decided to postpone the large family Christmas and New Year's celebrations for a few months, after everyone has been able to get a vaccine and viral numbers drop. Their parents are both in their late 70s.
"We're gonna have a big New Year's, Christmas, heck, 2020 party, kind of thing, where we're not worried about those gatherings quite as much and the impact it may have on my parents," Peltier said Saturday.
Several medical and health officials were unable to say with any certainty that Thanksgiving gatherings — which Gov. John Bel Edwards and local leaders warned against last month — had worsened the existing rise in cases.
Kevin Litten, spokesman for the state Department of Health, said Friday that Louisiana did see a spike in new cases after Thanksgiving across all age groups, but especially among children and staff in secondary schools. Colleges did not see a spike, though many were operating virtually or winding down after Thanksgiving.
But, Litten said people who had been infected and were reached by state contact tracers did not attribute their infections to Thanksgiving gatherings in significant enough numbers for state officials to definitively say the holiday was a primary cause of the post-holiday increase.
Susan Hassig, a Tulane University epidemiologist who recently spoke with state officials and learned the same information, speculated that some people may not want to admit when they were infected to contact tracers. She said it can be embarrassing to make that admission after so many public warnings.
Litten said it is always possible some people won't tell contact tracers exactly how they were infected. But he added that people may have been infected during the activities surrounding Thanksgiving celebrations.
"We do know that when you're exposed during travel and you mix with other groups, there's a greater chance of transmitting COVID(-19), so it could have been something that was tied to Thanksgiving but not the actual holiday, such as travel," Litten said.
What is clear in the Baton Rouge area is that case numbers are up, the positivity rate remains elevated in many parishes despite strong testing rates that likely helped drive down positivity some, and patients are continuing to show up in local hospitals.
The 12-parish Baton Rouge area added nearly 4,900 cases between Sunday, Dec. 13, and Saturday, a total that is nearly double the total from the prior seven-day period in the week beforehand, state health data show.
That prior regional total of 2,464 cases had been the weekly high since the rise in cases began gaining steam in late October.
East Baton Rouge Parish had among the largest week-to-week increases of any parish in the area, rising 120% from the week beforehand and adding 1,816 new cases for the seven-day period ended Saturday, state health data show. No parish in the Baton Rouge area saw a week-to-week increase in new cases of less than 74%.
When Louisiana was on the cusp of the latest surge in cases, at the end of October, East Baton Rouge had added 252 new cases for the seven-day period ended Oct. 31, state health data show.
The latest new cases probably won't be reflected in new hospitalizations for another week or more, but the numbers on hospitals are already up.
On Wednesday, Louisiana broke 1,600 hospitalizations for the first time since late July during the peak of the last surge in cases; the figure has dropped some since.
The state health region that includes East Baton Rouge Parish hit 186 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Thursday after remaining somewhat flat in the 170s for several days prior, the latest data show.
The last time hospitalizations were that high was in mid-August, when the region was coming off the summer peak quelled by the state mask mandate.
Dr. Peltier's North Oaks hospital is part of a north shore health region -- it also includes St. Helena and Livingston parishes -- that has seen even sharper rises in COVID-19 hospitalizations than the Baton Rouge state health region.
North Oaks has just come off a recent high of 66 COVID-19 patients. About half of its current 45 patients are in critical care and many of them on ventilators, hospital officials said.
Peltier said people often ask him if North Oaks is overwhelmed and, though the hospital has steady absences due to illness and other reasons, that hasn't happened. But he said hospitals only respond to the collective actions of the public and, as cases rise, he and his colleagues know they can expect more patients ahead.
For these and other hospitals, space and beds are less of an issue with greater patient numbers than having the appropriate staff numbers to treat them. Dr. Joseph Kanter, interim assistant secretary for the Office of Public Health, reminded reporters in a recent news conference of this fact for the perilous few weeks to months ahead.
Even with vaccines starting to be distributed, this third surge in cases in the Louisiana won't have help from other states, as in the past, because many are dealing with their own outbreaks, he said.
"Again, the end is in sight, and this is incredibly exciting, really, really exciting, but the road we're on right now is treacherous, you know, and dangerous. And, they say the majority of the car accidents happen, like, a few blocks from your house, and that's where find ourselves right now," Kanter said.