The mask-selling business is slowing down some as people begin to ease back from wearing coronavirus masks at places like Lakeside Mall in Metairie on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

With the highly contagious delta variant ripping through Louisiana and overwhelming hospitals statewide, Gov. John Bel Edwards urged the public on Friday to return to mask-wearing indoors and said he’s “seriously considering” reinstating a mask mandate for all residents, vaccinated or not.

Still, Edwards stopped short of issuing a proclamation requiring face coverings inside businesses and schools in order to give state public health officials time to review newly released data from the federal government that suggests vaccinated people infected with the virus can transmit it just as easily as unvaccinated people.

“I understand that people don’t want to wear a mask, but have you seen the people in the hospitals struggling to breathe? Have you watched the testimonies given just this week in Louisiana in our hospitals by doctors and nurses and patients themselves?” Edwards said. “That mask is not an onerous burden to prevent that, to prevent yourself from having it or to prevent spreading the disease to someone else that might end up in the hospital.”

Louisiana is in the thick of its worst surge in COVID-19 to-date, powered by the highly contagious delta variant and made worse by the state’s lackluster vaccination rates. Louisiana has the highest growth rate of cases per capita in the nation, and over the past seven days, the state identified 21,543 new infections, the highest batch of weekly cases recorded since the pandemic began 16 months ago, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health.

The fourth wave of the pandemic has led to a sharp increase in hospitalizations. For the third time in four days, the state reported a triple-digit increase in the number of patients hospitalized with coronavirus in Louisiana hospitals. The total number of infected patients stood at 1,740 on Thursday – the most recent data available. That’s just 329 patients short of the record set in mid-January and six-times higher than the number patients hospitalized a month ago. 

The onslaught of patients is crushing hospitals already stretched thin under nursing shortages. The share of patients appearing in the emergency room with COVID-like symptoms is up to 11.7%, the highest it’s been the entire pandemic, and at least 45 facilities have asked the state for assistance with staffing needs, Edward said.

Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana's largest standalone hospital, asked the state and federal government for nearly 200 additional staffers, including 126 registered nurses, according to hospital spokesperson Ryan Cross. 

“Hospitals are literally bursting at the seams right now,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the state’s top public health official.

And there’s no sign that the surge is slowing down, Kanter said.

The delta variant, a highly aggressive strain of COVID-19 which originated in India and now accounts for nearly all infections, is zeroing in on residents of all ages who haven’t been vaccinated. Over the last week, 90.4% of new COVID-19 cases, 89.3% of hospitalizations and 85% of deaths have been among those who are not fully vaccinated, Kanter said.

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The average age of Louisiana's hospitalized COVID-19 patients is 54. A month ago it was 64, Kanter said. The variant is also "attacking" children unlike any other time in the pandemic, Kanter said. There have been seven new cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children reported to the state in the past two days, and four remain in the pediatric ICU, Kanter said. 

"I fear that we're going to see more of these in the coming weeks," Kanter said, noting that none of the children were vaccinated. "We're seeing more children sick with COVID with delta than we have at any other point in this pandemic."

At a late Friday media briefing, officials with the state’s largest hospital system, Ochsner Health, emphasized that the pace of the virus spreading – and people being hospitalized – is getting worse, not better. CEO Warner Thomas said he asked the governor to consider reinstituting rules on masking.

“This is a situation now where we are seeing the escalation of COVID patients impact the care of others in our system,” Thomas said, adding that Ochsner cannot accept the numbers of transfer patients from other hospitals that it generally receives.

“We’re having to put off surgeries now at many of our facilities that might require an overnight stay,” added Dr. Robert Hart, the hospital’s chief medical officers.

Kanter said hospitals are in “crisis mode” at the moment, and quickly approaching capacity limits that will require them to make difficult decisions about who will and won’t get care. A number of hospitals are already canceling new, non-emergent inpatient procedures to free up bed space. If procedures like hip replacements, biopsies and colonoscopies are deferred too long, Kanter said, they can quickly become emergency situations.

Edwards said that numerous hospital leaders reached out asking him to reinstate the mask mandate, but just hours before Friday’s press conference began, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data suggesting that fully immunized people with so-called breakthrough infections of the delta variant may spread the virus to others just as easily as unvaccinated people. Edwards said he wants to give state public health officials time to review the information for themselves before rushing into a decision.

“When the facts change and you learn new things, as you do all the time in science, you have to change your approach,” Edwards said. “You can’t keep doing the same thing and hoping for a new outcome.”

Staff writers Jeff Adelson and Andrea Gallo contributed to this report

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