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Staff inside one of the covid units at North Oaks Hospital monitor patients, Wednesday, August 4, 2021, in Hammond, La.

Deaths from COVID-19 have soared in Livingston and Tangipahoa Parishes since the new, extremely virulent delta variant started Louisiana's worst-ever outbreak in early July.

Louisiana Department of Health data show the average number of Livingston Parish residents who died from COVID-19 each week has nearly tripled in the state’s fourth wave, from 2.7 per week in the 15 months before July 4, 2021 to seven each week after that date.

Weekly deaths in Tangipahoa more than doubled over the same period, from 3.9 before July 4 to 10 thereafter.

On Tuesday, Louisiana logged its highest single-day death toll since the pandemic began, with 139 confirmed and believed COVID-19 deaths.

“It continues to be really hard on our staff, because they fight so hard to keep those people alive,” Dr. Robert Peltier, chief medical officer for Tangipahoa’s North Oaks Health System, said in a recent radio broadcast about conditions at the hospital. “Sometimes it’s beyond their capabilities or anyone’s capabilities with this tragic illness that hits people really hard.”

A complex brew of misinformation, politics and infrastructure pitfalls muddied distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in these rural-suburban parishes east of Baton Rouge, allowing the delta variant to spread largely unchecked. Like in other rural pockets of Louisiana and the country, the result has been doctors struggling to save patients who seem to deteriorate faster than in past waves.

An overwhelming majority of the patients who die from the virus are unvaccinated.

The rise in deaths east of Baton Rouge are a microcosm of what’s happening statewide.

Not yet two-thirds of the way through August, 328% more Louisianans are dead from the virus this month than died in the whole month of June, said Dr. Joseph Kanter, the state health officer, at a press briefing on Friday. In the same period, COVID-19 fatalities rose almost 1467% among people younger than 40.

Livingston Parish on Tuesday set a record for most parish residents to die from the virus in a seven day period, with 15 COVID-19 fatalities reported over the prior week.

Funeral homes and coroners’ offices have been overwhelmed. On Tuesday alone, the Livingston Parish coroner processed bodies of six COVID-19 casualties, a secretary for the office said.

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“We’re swamped,” said Anita Boeke, the office’s secretary.

Since August began, 75% of services hosted by local funeral home Seale Funeral Services have been for people who have died of COVID-19. On some mornings, staff arrive to three or four calls made overnight by families who want to plan remembrances. Staff are then left scrambling to accommodate the several more families who call throughout the day.

“We're being overloaded and having to try to do more services than we're physically able to do sometimes with our locations and staff availability,” said funeral director Bobby Suchman.

“My own dad passed away last year (from COVID-19), so this isn't just something that's affecting the families alone,” he added. “So it’s also affecting our staff.”

Suchman met with a group of siblings on Friday whose mother and father both died from the virus. The week before, another man had reached out about planning a funeral for both of his parents. They too had both succumbed to COVID-19.

“We're doing double services because of households that are losing multiple family members,” Suchman said.

The best way to slow the spread of the virus and prevent more deaths, doctors say, is to get a vaccine. That message was bolstered Monday by an announcement from the Food & Drug Administration that Pfizer’s two-shot vaccine received full approval.

Demand for the shots has risen in Tangipahoa Parish, in part because of fear the virus is striking in people after family, friends and members of the community became infected. But officials say demand is still too low to create a broad base of protection the parish needs to relieve pressure on struggling hospitals.

“We’ve seen the numbers in the parish go up,” said Dawson Primes, emergency management director for Tangipahoa Parish. “But we’re still below the national average and we’re still below Louisiana’s average. It’s not where we’d like to see it.”

The rate of residents dead from COVID-19 has climbed in East Baton Rouge Parish, too, but at a lower rate than in the city’s rural-suburban outlying parishes. Weekly fatalities there rose from 11 before July 4 to 17 after that date.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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