They were fishermen, artists, basketball coaches, bus drivers.
Louisiana’s latest coronavirus casualties have come more than a year after the state recorded its first death. Much has changed during that timespan: For at least three months, safe and effective vaccines have been available to anyone who wants them; hospitals are no longer at their breaking points; and mask mandates have been lifted.
And there’s some good news: Louisiana’s annual coronavirus death rate is down by 74% when comparing last year with the three-month period since vaccines have been available to anyone. But while the march of deaths has slowed considerably, it has not stopped — far from it. And in some parts of the state, death rates remain stubbornly high.
The parishes where coronavirus death rates have not dropped on par with the state average include places that will surprise no one — for instance, many of Louisiana’s conservative rural parishes, where people spurned masks during the virus’s peak and have been slow to embrace the vaccine. But they also include more liberal urban areas like East Baton Rouge Parish, where the virus’s death rate is down by less than two-thirds.
As the virus continues to circulate, unvaccinated people are particularly at-risk for catching the highly infectious Delta variant, according to state health officials and infectious disease experts. And Louisiana ranks second-lowest in the nation for its vaccination rates. State epidemiologist Theresa Sokol said she’s particularly worried about recent upticks of cases in the regions that include East Baton Rouge, Livingston, Tangipahoa, Lafourche and St. Mary parishes.
In some ways, the challenge is especially acute in rural parishes.
“The crisis of COVID deaths has passed,” said Bud Barrow, the chief executive officer of Beauregard Memorial Hospital in DeRidder. “But unfortunately, it slowed the momentum of people feeling (urgency) to get vaccinated. And therefore, our vaccination rates simply aren’t where they ought to be. If you assume there is some level of failure with each person who gets sick who didn’t get vaccinated, we have a ways to go.”
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Beauregard Parish’s coronavirus death rates are down by barely half since vaccines have become widely available. But perhaps that’s not surprising, given that just 21% of Beauregard residents have received the vaccine. Statewide, about 35% of Louisianans have been inoculated.
Each death at this point is a fresh gut punch, said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, the chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge and an infectious disease specialist. She likened getting the vaccine to other basic types of lifesaving preventive medicine, like colonoscopies and cancer screenings.
“It is a crying shame to see a 55-year-old woman dying of breast cancer because she didn’t get a mammogram,” O’Neal said. “And it is a crying shame to watch someone die of COVID because they didn’t get a vaccine available at every pharmacy in the city.”
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In East Baton Rouge, the death rate is down by 63% since the vaccine became widely available compared with last year. East Baton Rouge Parish has a 39% vaccination rate, above the state average.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office has attributed 15 June deaths to the coronavirus. The median age of the group was 63, while the youngest was 43 and the oldest was 83.
Their relatives and friends mourned the losses in obituaries, through funerals and on social media. Shortly after a 61-year-old Baton Rouge man died from the virus, his brother posted this message on social media: “PLEASE GET YOUR COVID SHOT.” The man declined to be interviewed for this story.
Another family described a 73-year-old grandmother in her obituary as someone who “loved music, dancing and sharing a meal with family and friends.” A third family eulogized a 71-year-old who had no shortage of friends and “genuinely loved them all and would give them the shirt off of his back if they needed it.” And a fourth family explained that their 59-year-old mother “created art, wrote poetry, made jewelry, spent hours at Walmart finding clearance sales & talking to strangers, collected watches, stayed up late and slept in the next morning.”
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The coronavirus killed them all. Family members did not return messages for this story.
The common denominator of those currently being hospitalized with the coronavirus is that they have not been vaccinated, said hospital officials. Officials at Ochsner Health System — which has the widest reach in the state — said that more than 98% of those admitted to the hospital with coronavirus symptoms have not been fully vaccinated. Ochsner has between 60 and 70 coronavirus patients across its hospitals.
The nation of Israel, which has achieved almost universal vaccination, serves as a powerful example. Though Israel’s population is roughly twice that of Louisiana’s, the country didn’t record a single death during the last week, officials reported. Over the last three-plus months, Louisiana has been averaging more than 50 deaths a week.
Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, Ochsner’s medical director for hospital quality, said hospitals in Baton Rouge and north Louisiana — including Shreveport — continue to see steady levels of coronavirus patients. Ochsner’s main New Orleans campus on Jefferson Highway houses the highest number of such patients, but that hospital also takes referrals from across the state and does not necessarily reflect the demographics of New Orleans, she said.
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Orleans Parish has cut its annual coronavirus death rates by 89% since the vaccine has become widely available. That’s one of the most precipitous drops seen by any large parish. Orleans Parish also has one of the state’s highest vaccination rates, though at 48%, it’s still got a long way to go. Sokol, the state epidemiologist, said Orleans is “still not where we need to be to control transmission.”
Kemmerly said the results speak for themselves. In the last 30 days, none of Ochsner’s hospitals have had a patient die from coronavirus who had been fully vaccinated. And yet, “there’s this constant low level of COVID admission that continues despite best efforts,” she said.
Within the past 10 days, Ochsner has seen a “big uptick” in new cases at urgent care and outpatient clinics, said Dawn Pevey, Ochsner’s chief executive officer for System Centers of Excellence. The system is also seeing younger people getting sick: more than half of Ochsner’s newly diagnosed coronavirus cases have been in people between ages 20 and 40, and 58% were women.
Both Ochsner and Our Lady of the Lake officials said patient demographics have skewed younger, as elderly patients have been more serious about getting vaccinated.
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And at Our Lady of the Lake, coronavirus hospital admissions have also been increasing recently.
“I got a call last Saturday, our COVID unit is full, what do we do, where do we put the next patient?” O’Neal said. The unit now has 21 beds; Our Lady of the Lake had opened dozens of additional units during the height of the pandemic, but closed them as transmission rates went down.
So far, it hasn't opened another new unit, but O’Neal said the hospital has had patients wait longer in the emergency room to be admitted and moved some long-term patients onto noncoronavirus floors once they no longer require isolation.
In DeRidder, Barrow said his hospital has been lucky to have few COVID-19 hospitalizations recently, thanks to the vaccine. But he also worried about what will happen going forward.
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“People who are not getting vaccinated are potentially doing harm to themselves and others,” Barrow said. “Falling behind in vaccination rates is a systematic disappointment.”
State health officials and hospital executives say they’re doing everything they can think of to incentivize vaccination. Louisiana opened a “shot at a million” lottery last month, where prizes range from weekly $100,000 drawings to a $1 million grand prize. Vaccine locations have sprung up in airports, malls and on Bourbon Street.
Kemmerly was overjoyed that she helped to convince a family at Lakeside Mall in Metairie this week to get vaccinated while they were shopping. Vaccines have become increasingly important with the Delta variant circling, she said.
“The variant is really only scary for those who are unvaccinated,” she said.
Scientists say the vaccines are effective against the variant, which has spread widely in neighboring states, including Arkansas. Both the delta variant and a relative, known as “delta plus,” have been confirmed in Louisiana.