With its nurses and respiratory therapists stretched thin under a crushing wave of COVID cases, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge has for months been at "capacity level red."

For patients at smaller, community hospitals suffering from heart attacks, strokes or a host of other maladies requiring specialized care, that's meant one thing: there's no bed for you here. 

But a small measure of relief just arrived. 

The Lake on Monday welcomed a crew of nearly 100 health care workers, hired by the Louisiana Department of Health as part of a multi-million-dollar blitz to beef up hospital capacity statewide amid a fourth and, so far, worst surge.

The team of 64 registered nurses, 16 respiratory therapists and 16 certified nursing assistants will help Louisiana's largest standalone hospital open 12 ICU beds and 41 Med-Surg beds for COVID patients beginning Wednesday.

Hospitals in Louisiana are struggling to care for the onslaught of COVID patients with a workforce of nurses that was already diminished prior to the pandemic. Fifty-eight hospitals have reached out to the state saying they're in dire need of staff and can no longer provide adequate care to patients. 

Earlier in the pandemic, hospitals could turn to traveling nurses to boost their ranks, but as the latest surge ripples across the country, demand for those out-of-state workers has skyrocketed. 

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Tremecka Hollie, a Baton Rouge native and ICU nurse, has spent much of the pandemic working at hospitals in Texas, California and New York. Her 30-day contract working at the Lake that began Monday will be her first in Louisiana. 

"I'm happy to be here to serve my community," Hollie said, wearing a cap emblazoned with comic book superhero font. 

"The main thing I want people to know is to get vaccinated. Most of the patients being seen are unvaccinated," Hollie said. "As an ICU nurse, it's very hard to see individuals young and old die daily. I've been seeing it since March of last year, and it's very heartbreaking."

Stephanie Manson, the Lake's chief operating officer, said nurses like Hollie will allow the hospital to reopen its doors, return to "capacity level green," and accept transfers from smaller facilities.

How long before the Lake reverts back to capacity level red is unclear. As of Monday morning, the hospital had already received 25 requests from smaller facilities needing to transfer patients in critical care.


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater