For weeks, Louisiana public-health experts, epidemiologists and prominent political leaders have warned with increasing urgency that the state’s abysmal COVID vaccination rate would lead to a surge in infections, hospitalizations and death.
The surge has arrived.
On Wednesday, hospitalizations from COVID-19 rose to 844 patients, the highest levels since mid-February, straining doctors and nurses now in their fourth go-around with the deadly virus.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 5,388 confirmed and probable cases of the coronavirus, the third largest batch of new infections since the pandemic began more than sixteen months ago.
Hospitals statewide said the vast majority of COVID-positive patients requiring hospitalization are unvaccinated, and Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday that 97% of the 1,479 COVID-related deaths since February have been among those not fully vaccinated.
While infections from the highly-contagious delta variant are on-the-rise nationwide, the outbreak is particularly dire in Louisiana, where nearly two-thirds of the population remains unvaccinated against COVID-19.
Nine more Louisiana residents died from COVID-related complications Wednesday, according to state data, pushing the death toll from confirmed cases of the coronavirus to 9,819 since March 2020.
Doctors are bracing for an even higher number of deaths in the weeks to come as the surge continues its upward climb.
“These numbers aren’t just numbers. These are individuals that have been loved and that are missed.” said Dr. Katherine Baumgarten, an infectious disease specialist at Ochsner Health. “We could have prevented this. We should have prevented this through vaccinations.”
Louisiana logged 10,059 confirmed cases of COVID-19 over the last seven days, a number that's 6.5 times larger than what was reported four weeks ago, according to an analysis of state data by The Advocate / The Times-Picayune.
Hospitalizations statewide rose by 550 patients over that four week period, tripling in number. Those with severe symptoms from COVID-19 are skewing younger than previous phases of the pandemic, hospital officials said.
At Baton Rouge General’s two hospitals, the number of COVID-positive admits nearly doubled in a week, rising to 54 patients on Wednesday. The vast majority of those patients – 95 percent – are unvaccinated, and 40% are under the age of 50, according to Katie Johnston, a hospital spokesperson.
The average age of COVID-positive patients across Ochsner Health’s hospitals has dropped to 55-years-old during this latest surge. At the start of the pandemic, in April 2020, the average age was 69-years-old, and in January, it was 65-years-old, according to Warner Thomas, Ochsner’s CEO.
Kristopher Head’s godmother grew more and more worried about him with each breath that he struggled to gulp down last week.
And at the state’s largest hospital, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, three-quarters of the 65 patients are under the age of 65, according to Stephanie Manson, the hospital’s chief operating officer. Hospitalizations there jumped by 30 patients in a week.
The demographic shift makes sense considering the varying vaccination rates among 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.
Earlier this month, a 24-year-old ER nurse from Lafayette died after seeking treatment for COVID-19. The loss of life stuck with U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, who urged the public to get vaccinated or face a higher rate of “unnecessary death.”
“Young people that age should not be dying,” Cassidy, a Baton Rouge physician, said Tuesday. “We either come to a state where we accept that people who shouldn’t be dying at this age are dying, or we decide to get vaccinated.”
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Still, Republicans are among the most reluctant to get vaccinated, Cassidy, a Republican, acknowledged. Among Democrats, 86% had received at least one shot of a vaccine, a Washington Post-ABC News poll reported earlier this month, compared to only 45% of Republicans. And 47% of Republicans said they aren’t likely to get vaccinated compared to only 6% of Democrats.
The severity of the latest surge appears to have nudged some high-profile fence-sitters in the GOP towards vaccinations, including U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, who received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Sunday.
“Especially with the delta variant becoming a lot more aggressive and seeing another spike, it was a good time to do it,” Scalise said Tuesday. “When you talk to people who run hospitals, in New Orleans or other states, 90% of the people in the hospital with delta variant have not been vaccinated. That’s another signal the vaccine works.”
Cassidy, who taught at LSU’s medical school, said politicians of all stripes should be advocating on behalf of vaccinations, but said that doctors and nurses are the most effective communicators and should be front-and-center in public health messaging. “Go speak to your doctor: ask she or he what their recommendation is regarding the vaccine,” Cassidy said.
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That’s a strategy that Gov. Edwards has returned to in recent weeks. On his monthly call-in radio show Wednesday, the Democratic governor ceded much of his airtime to Dr. Baumgarten, of Ochsner Health. And at a press conference Friday, he took a backseat as Dr. Catherine O’Neal, the doctor-in-chief at Our Lady of the Lake, attracted national attention with a dire warning to the unvaccinated.
"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,” O’Neal said.
Without a significant uptick in vaccinations, or the return of mitigation measures like mask mandates, health officials don’t expect the latest surge in cases to peak anytime soon.
Then again, with a new variant, and a segment of the population now inoculated, it’s difficult to predict what will happen, said Dr. Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University’s School of Public Health.
“I think part of the challenge in thinking about the surge is not feeling confident that we are going to see it behave the same way as other surges,” Hassig said. “We’re on a different playing field.”
Staff writers Jeff Adelson and Tyler Bridges contributed to this story.