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Wearing a shirt reading 'Party Animal, Roxie Johnson, 85, talks with pharmacist Vicki Stokes, right, a member of the morning's clinic visit team from Walgreens, after Stokes gave Johnson one of the first COVID-19 vaccines administered to nursing home residents at Our Lady of the Lake”s Ollie Steele Burden Manor, Monday, January 4, 2021.

During the weekend, East Baton Rouge Parish broke 25,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and the 12-parish region surpassed 60,000 cases since the pandemic started in Louisiana in March. 

More than 35% of those confirmed infections have been appeared in the past 2½ months, in a third Louisiana surge in viral cases that began to gain steam around Nov. 1.

Though alarming, the rate of the Baton Rouge region's growth in cases in this third surge is behind the state's, where nearly 42% of the nearly 312,300 cases in Louisiana have been confirmed through testing since Nov. 1, state health data show.

Health experts say the latest surge of infections has put the Baton Rouge area and state on a continued plateau of high daily case numbers that will likely be sustained for some weeks by the run of recent holidays that brought people together.

Test positivity rates have been up. Hospitalizations have been up and are stretching ICU bed capacities. About a quarter were open for any medical need on Monday in a state health region that includes East Baton Rouge and some other metro parishes, though not Livingston and some others.

Deaths are also up in the region, recently matching the peak that followed the summer surge in cases but below those from the spring, state data show. 

"We've not seen a plateau like this before. It's never stayed up like this consistently either at a state level or even at a regional level," said Susan Hassig, a Tulane University epidemiologist who has advised the state on its viral response.

The worrying trends, some of which may already be in place for the next few weeks, come as the state's vaccination effort begins to gather steam after a slow start and the state's viral restrictions on businesses and public gatherings are close to expiring. 

Many businesses and some Republican leaders have chaffed under the rules and tried to challenge them through legislation and in court. Gov. John Bel Edwards is planning a news conference Tuesday about their status.

Last week, officials who run hospitals in the Baton Rouge area and who are just beginning to ramp up vaccinations beyond their staff to those 70 and older under expanded state eligibility rules warned about rising hospitalizations, which, locally, were approaching the peak from summer. 

Ochsner Health System officials said they hadn't even yet started to feel the effects of the holiday celebrations, perhaps just infections spread during pre-Christmas parties. Numbers had dropped some during the weekend, however.

Officials at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center began vaccinations of those 70 and older on Wednesday at the north Baton Rouge campus, and Baton Rouge General began them on Friday at the Mid City and Bluebonnet campuses. Both systems plan to add locations in the coming days and weeks. 

The East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Aging announced Monday the opening of a pop-up vaccination clinic at its downtown center Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with hopes of vaccinating 1,000 seniors.

Baton Rouge General officials said they vaccinated 60 people on Friday after an initial run and hoped to vaccinate 500 people per week going forward.

On Monday, Ochsner officials, who had an earlier jump on vaccinations, said they had scheduled 113,025 vaccination appointments statewide and given 57,035 doses through Sunday, nearly 39% of them during the past weekend.

The officials, who run the largest hospital system in the state, said they believe they could distribute 15,000 to 16,000 doses per day statewide if they can be assured of a consistent supply of vaccines.

Calling that level of vaccination "huge," if achieved, they noted that they typically don't know how many doses they are getting — and the state doesn't often know either — until shortly before the delivery.

"Again, it's hard to make that kind of plan until we know we can get that kind of supply," said Dr. Robert Hart, Ochsner's chief medical officer. "That creates a little bit of a problem."

Warner Thomas, Ochsner CEO and president, added later hospital officials were monitoring supplies and appointments daily with the state and federal government to ensure doses are available for seniors and health system staff. 

The hospital officials suggested a rough estimate of herd immunity in the state would require vaccination of somewhere around 2.8 million adults; the current vaccines require two doses each.

Hassig, the Tulane epidemiologist, said she hopes that, by late February or early March, the gathering vaccination push will result in fewer hospitalizations and deaths among those 70 and older, but, for the coming few weeks, the virus's impact can be expected to continue.

"For infections that are already present, the vaccine isn't going to make a difference," she said.

Through Dec. 30, two-thirds of the parishes in the Baton Rouge area had positivity rates of 10% or greater and most were trending upward, an indicator under state and federal standards of wide community spread of the virus.

St. Helena was the highest at 19.4%, but a clutch of parishes — Ascension, Livingston and West Baton Rouge — weren't far behind, hovering between 15.6% and 16.8% positivity for the week ending Dec. 30. 

Jared Hymowitz, coordinator for East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's Health City Initiative, said a brief holiday drop in testing and the absence of testing by LSU during the break did probably contribute to some of the increase in positivity rate but the majority of it is from community spread.

He based that conclusion — that rising positivity rates weren't simply an artifact of lower testing rates — on the hospitalizations numbers, which have been trending upward too. 

"We started feeling the numbers in mid-December, and they haven't slowed down since," Hymowitz said.

In Louisiana, state positivity figures are the ratio of positive cases to tests given for a weeklong period.

One-quarter of East Baton Rouge Parish's total cases have been added since Dec. 1, state data show. The parish broke 25,000 cases Sunday and pushed that number to 25,105 cases on Monday.

East Baton Rouge's positivity rate was 13.1% for the week ended Dec. 30. It's the parish's highest weekly positivity rate since the third surge began, state data show.

Concern over rising positivity and cases were no less a concern down Interstate 10.

Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment delivered what has become an all-too-often warning about the high positivity rates and the continued testing efforts during in his bi-weekly address to the Parish Council during a recent virtual meeting.

"So, we all need all of our citizens to continue wearing masks, washing their hands, practice social distancing," he said, adding those with symptoms or close contacts should get tested.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.