Coronavirus file photo stock of nurse

In this March 13, 2020, file photo, a nurse at a drive-up coronavirus testing station wears a face shield and other protective gear as she waits by a tent in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center did not admit a single patient with COVID-19 on Thursday, and medical officials believe that's the first time that has happened in a 24-hour period since some time in May.

It's one sign that new cases of the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory and other illnesses known as COVID-19, have dropped from their summer peak in mid-July, when Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a statewide mask order.

New cases are down significantly through Sunday in the state and Baton Rouge area. Any spike in cases from Labor Day hasn't shown up in the data yet.

Hospitalizations and deaths have also fallen off as the cycle of infection, illness, medical treatment and, in some cases, deaths from the summer peak have generally played out and haven't been replaced with a similarly sized wave of severely sickened people, the data show.

But health experts offer a cautious assessment about whether the Baton Rouge area made it through Labor Day, which was Sept. 7, without setting off another sharp rise in cases, as was the case in the weeks following the Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays. Beyond Labor Day, these officials also emphasized the importance of the mask mandate in Louisiana's and Baton Rouge's improving health statistics, but were careful about painting too rosy a picture for the future.

Edwards has shifted to the looser Phase 3 restrictions — with bars gradually reopening and LSU's Tiger Stadium reopening with limited fan access — while the return to in-person classes for secondary and college students has continued with cooler fall and winter months and the flu season drawing near, they noted.

"We are looking good if you look at the data, but again, the concerns are, now that we are opening up again, you know, what will that do to the numbers," said Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, an epidemiologist with the LSU Health Sciences Center, School of Public Health and an advisor on the state's pandemic response.

According to a trend analysis from the Department of Health, new cases had generally plateaued through Sept. 15 at a point roughly equivalent to or somewhat below the peak from the first spike in cases in April and well off the mid-summer high in the three state health regions that include Baton Rouge-area parishes.

An Advocate analysis of raw case data from the nearly two weeks since Sept. 15 suggests new case trends have remained roughly the same, or were declining in the 12-parish Baton Rouge region.

As of Sunday, the Baton Rouge-area state health Region 2 had a seven-day rolling average that was about three-fourths of the April peak in cases after a sharp drop between Sept. 14 and 15. The seven-day average stood at 87.4 cases per day, a quarter of the mid-summer peak of 325 cases per day.

Health Region 2 encompasses Ascension, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberville, Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes.

Trend analysis of death counts offered from the state shows deaths from COVID-19 have slowed across much of the Baton Rouge area when comparing the first 25 days in August with the first 25 days in September, including in populous Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes.

"They have certainly slowed down," said Dr. John Fraiche, the Ascension Parish coroner.

Ascension Parish has had six deaths from COVID-19 so far in September. It had 22 during August.

Ascension is closing in on 100 deaths since the viral outbreak began to be detected in the state in early March. The parish hit 98 on Sunday.

Two notable exceptions in the death trends are East and West Feliciana parishes, which have seen deaths increase between August and September. Officials in those parishes have complained that cases and deaths at state facilities like Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola are skewing the parishes' overall coronavirus statistics.

Even with improving statistics overall, some saw signs for worry. Straif-Bourgeois noted that the state dashboard data appeared to show that per capita testing counts had dropped off recently and, even though positivity is down, the reduced testing might be missing some infections.

The 600-bed Our Lady of the Lake hospital in Baton Rouge had 16 admitted patients with COVID-19 as of Friday morning, a fraction of the highs in the summer when the hospital's capacity was tested. But Dr. Catherine O'Neal, chief medical officer and director of infection prevention at OLOL, wasn't ready to close the book on Labor Day just yet.

In her view, not enough time has passed to measure the full impact of summer's final break, an impact that may depend heavily on the public's willingness to continue to adhere to mask and other social distancing requirements.

O'Neal pointed to state testing data suggesting people in the youngest age groups were carrying the heaviest burden of new infections and are among the groups likely to have brought home any infection from Labor Day celebrations.

While those healthier groups are less likely to show up in hospitals, they can spread the virus to others. It might take another few weeks after the standard two-week period to see if the virus has reached older, more susceptible populations. A similar pattern, she said, followed Memorial Day, where an uptick in cases didn't show up for a month.

"So you know you have to pass it and pass it until you pass it to enough people, that ill people start to get it. Now hopefully, we won't see the same increase because we didn't have a mask mandate for Memorial Day," she said. "Hopefully, our mask mandate that really got us to this point of allowing us to have a safer Labor Day will also get us through post-Labor Day, but that is only as good as the people who wear the masks."

O'Neal noted that, even though COVID-19 admissions have dropped, Our Lady of the Lake is admitting a higher than normal number of patients that is stressing the hospital's capacity during a time of year when medical personnel would normally be breathing a sigh of relief before flu season.

The reason is unclear, she said, but at least some patients have "post-COVID syndrome," an array of health problems that can follow several weeks after a coronavirus infection and attack the neurological and vascular systems. Those patients aren't counted as COVID-19 patients.

"This is a time to sort of gather your strength before flu season, and we're just too close to capacity to do that, and that's concerning for the medical system as a whole, as we have to negotiate the next increase in cases," O'Neal said.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.