Hospitals across Louisiana experienced a surge in COVID-19 patients over the weekend as the more virulent and transmissible delta strain of the coronavirus rippled across communities that remain unvaccinated.
The Louisiana Department of Health reported that 711 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday afternoon, the highest number since mid-February, when the state was recovering from a deadly winter surge in cases.
On Saturday night, Louisiana's biggest hospital, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, admitted its largest batch of patients since cases last peaked in January, said Dr. Catherine O'Neal, the hospital's chief medical officer.
By the end of the weekend, the hospital had admitted 30 new patients — enough to require the facility to open an entirely new floor for COVID-positive patients. Among that cohort of patients, 20 were under the age of 65 and hadn’t been fully vaccinated, O'Neal said.
Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by 148 patients since Friday, alongside nine additional deaths, the Health Department said.
While much of the rest of the country enjoys a coronavirus-free summer, Louisiana, with its paltry vaccination rates, is squarely in the thick of its fourth surge in cases. And there’s no indication that the latest uptick in cases will subside anytime soon.
"I want to be clear after seeing what I've seen the past two weeks," O'Neal said at a press conference Friday. "We only have two choices: we are either going to get vaccinated and end the pandemic. Or we are going to accept death. A lot of it, this surge, and another surge, and possibly another variant."
More than 10,000 Louisianans have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, most without the opportunity to get vaccinated.
The vast majority of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, multiple hospital officials said. And while earlier waves of the pandemic saw cases skyrocket among elderly residents, the latest surge in patients is skewing much younger.
"Everyday we see patients in theirs 20s, we have a 19-year-old who is incredibly sick," said Dr. Katherine Baumgarten, director of infection control at Ochsner Health. "That patient didn't think it could happen to them."
The shift in demographics from older patients to young makes sense when you consider how Louisiana’s vaccination rate differs between age groups. Roughly 76% of residents aged 60 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, offering them strong protection against serious illness.
Meanwhile, only 22% of 18-to-29-year-olds in Louisiana are fully vaccinated, with only slightly better rates among middle-aged residents.
“Many of them just didn’t think it would happen to them,” said Dr. Jeffrey Elder, an emergency room physician at LCMC Health. “It’s extremely unfortunate. You don’t want to be hospitalized for a disease that’s now preventable.”
The number of new COVID-19 cases confirmed each day in Louisiana has been rising for the last four weeks, a surge that’s been fueled by the arrival of the fast-spreading delta variant, which now accounts for 59% of cases, officials said.
Doctors say they're bracing for even higher hospitalizations and deaths.
"You can avoid illness and death through a simple thing: getting a vaccine," Baumgarten said. “If we don’t do the things we need to do to get vaccinated, this can – and will – get worse. There are other mutations that can occur in a population that's not fully vaccinated."
The three vaccines currently available offer an effective defense against the new delta strain. However, antibodies that were gained from previous COVID-19 infections are unlikely to offer sufficient protection, O'Neal said.
At Baton Rouge General's two hospitals – where around 40 COVID-positive patients are currently hospitalized – doctors are encountering more and more people that have already experienced a bout with COVID-19 but are back again with severe symptoms.
“What that tells us is whatever antibodies these people generated the first time around may not be enough to protect them from this variant going forward,” said Stephen Mumford, Baton Rouge General’s chief operating officer. “Your best chance at the highest level of protection is to get the vaccine.”
O’Neal warned that the delta variant is a “whole different beast” from the initial strain of the coronavirus. For example, while last summer's virus was not particularly infectious among children, the delta variant is, she said.
Most weeks, Our Lady of Lake doesn’t admit a single kid with COVID-19, O’Neal said. However, over the last month, the hospital has consistently admitted between one and three adolescents a week. That’s comparable to the pediatric hospitalizations at the peak of the last surge, O’Neal said.
“It’s disturbing that we’re seeing those trickling in of numbers at the beginning of the surge instead of at its peak,” O’Neal said. “That’s just not what we would expect. It’s a bad sign for the weeks to come.”
The number of children testing positive for COVID-19 at doctors offices and urgent care clinics associated with Ochsner Health has increased ten-fold over the last six weeks, Baumgarten said.
In New Orleans, Children’s Hospital has seen a “minor uptick” in pediatric cases of COVID-19, said pediatric infectious disease expert Dr. Mark Kline, the hospital’s physician-in-chief.
“We have a handful of kids in the hospital now and one in the ICU,” said Kline. “We were down to zero.”
Children typically do better than adults with the coronavirus, though there have been cases of severe illness and death. Nine children in Louisiana have died from COVID-19. Last week, Mississippi officials warned of a surge attributed to the delta variant that put 7 children in hospitals, two of whom were on ventilators.
“We need adults to get the vaccine,” said Kline. “If for no other reason, people ought to get the vaccine to protect their kids."
Staff writers Emily Woodruff and Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.