COVID-19 is again on the rise in Louisiana as state officials urge residents to get vaccinated to stave off the rapidly spreading delta variant.
The Louisiana Department of Health this week reported the most new coronavirus cases in the state since mid-February — a time when vaccines weren't available to a broad section of the population and the nation emerged from a crushing winter surge. Officials warned that the virus’s more-transmissible delta variant, first detected in India, is running rampant among unvaccinated residents and hospitals are reporting growing patient numbers.
The Department of Health logged 1,341 new confirmed cases and eight more deaths in its daily update Wednesday. In the days prior, the state’s seven-day average of new cases ballooned from 299 on July 3 to 794 this past Monday. The 468 Louisianans who were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday amounted to a jump of more than 200 patients compared to 12 days prior, the Health Department said.
Louisiana is facing a “statewide outbreak,” Dr. Joseph Kanter, the Louisiana State Health Officer, told The Advocate | The Times-Picayune on Wednesday.
“When I look at the data, cases are going up pretty sharply across the state,” Kanter said. “I wouldn’t pick out any one area that’s better or worse off than anyone else now.”
Because Louisiana has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, pockets of the state were primed for soaring infection rates once delta, a highly contagious variant, was established, said Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University.
“You’ve got populations that may have been less than careful in mitigation efforts, quick to drop the mask, quick to break social distancing,” said Hassig.
At the same time, natural immunity from infections during the winter surge that may have offered at least some protection is waning as the six-month mark passes, Hassig said. There is also reason to believe prior infection does not protect against the delta strain.
And delta is far more transmissible — about 50% more transmissible, scientists say — giving the virus ample opportunity to spread from host to host.
“If it’s twice as transmissible, every person infects four rather than two,” said Hassig. “Once that’s moving in a slightly more interactive community, it’s going to shoot up.”
Louisiana health officials sounded the alarm on rising COVID cases among unvaccinated people this week, saying Tuesday that 94% of cases in the state since May have occurred in people who haven’t received shots.
Given the availability of vaccines across the state, the current surge in cases is entirely preventable, Kanter said.
“We announced 10 new deaths (Wednesday). Those were largely preventable deaths,” Kanter said. “We had 9 new deaths (Tuesday). Those were largely preventable deaths. That’s the real tragedy of the spike this time.”
In the Capital Region, East Baton Rouge city-parish residents have flocked to vaccine appointments at a higher clip than Louisianans as a whole, Health Department Data show. But cases in the city-parish still rose sharply in early July as delta emerged as the dominant COVID-19 strain in the United States.
Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer and infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake, said her staff is prepared for another surge as far as knowledge of the virus is concerned, but still suffers from a shortage in health workers critical to treating COVID-19 patients.
“What we do not have and what is in extremely short supply is nursing staffing, physical therapy staffing, respiratory therapy staffing, and we can’t get them,” O’Neal said. “We will go through this next surge with an extreme shortage of staffing around the state and that will hurt patients more than any other supply because the human supply of health care is irreplaceable.”
Kanter said that shortage of health care workers is being seen across the state and nation, speculating that the stress of the pandemic may have driven many nurses to take new jobs or return to school.
While Kanter said he doesn’t expect patients from the current surge to entirely overwhelm the state’s hospital capacity, “we are going to be stretching our staffing resources in hospitals which are already smaller than they would have been.”
The mortality rate of a patient with COVID-19 skyrockets during a surge as hospitals fill with patients and resources are stretched thin, O’Neal said.
“Your illness will be worse because of the surge,” O’Neal said. “I felt very comfortable taking care of a COVID-19 patient a couple of months ago. … I worry about continuing to offer the same standard of care for everyone who walks in our doors.”
Rural Tangipahoa Parish, where Health Department data show just 29% of residents have been fully vaccinated — compared to 36% of Louisiana residents overall — on Tuesday logged 79 new COVID-19 cases, the sixth-most of any parish in the state.
While the choice of whether to receive a shot falls to individual citizens, the crush of cases among unvaccinated people should be a key data point for people still gauging whether to get a shot, said Robby Miller, the Tangipahoa Parish president.
“I think that everybody needs to weigh the evidence themselves and make a decision,” Miller said. “And if the data shows that 94% of people getting (COVID-19) are not vaccinated, that’s a pretty telltale sign.”
The best way to slow the spread of the virus across the state is by getting vaccinated, Kanter said. Those who aren’t fully vaccinated need to wear masks and distance themselves indoors, something that has “never been more important than it is now.”
“We don’t have a lot of vaccinations, and then we don’t have a lot of masking and distancing,” Kanter said. “That’s why we’re in a surge right now. If any one of those wasn’t the case, we might not be in a surge right now.”
Asked whether Gov. John Bel Edwards would consider reinstating the mask mandate or other public health restrictions from earlier in the pandemic, a spokesperson for his office said the governor will focus instead on encouraging vaccinations.
“What we know for certain right now is that the best way to fight the virus is for more Louisianans to get vaccinated,” said Christina Stephens, a spokesperson for the governor’s office. “We have three safe and effective vaccines that are widely available and free, and everyone who is not vaccinated is encouraged to get one of those vaccines as soon as possible.”
The impending summer surge won’t be the state’s last if vaccination rates don’t significantly rise, O’Neal warned.
“What I hope everybody understands is we’re going to experience a surge because we don't have enough vaccinated individuals in our community,” O’Neal said. “When this surge goes away in a couple of months, we’ll have another one unless we have more vaccinated people in the community. This pandemic will not end unless we reach a vaccination point to prevent it.”