A year after the novel coronavirus began surging through the state, Louisiana surpassed a bleak highwater mark Monday after health officials reported more than 10,000 people are suspected to have died from the illness COVID-19.
That figure, though still preliminary, represents more deaths in Louisiana than from accidents, strokes and some of the top causes of death for the state’s residents in past years, and was second only to heart disease in fatalities last year, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Now stretching into its 13th month since Louisiana reported its first death from the disease, the pandemic also has come at the ultimate price for those who’ve died, and their families.
“Today is a grim milestone for our state as more than 10,000 Louisianans have now died from COVID-19, marking a year of sadness and loss, as so many families and friends are missing their loved ones,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement Monday. “We must pray for them and their families and do everything we can to prevent the spread of this terrible illness.”
The 10,030 deaths suspected to be tied to COVID-19 is greater than the number of deaths the state reported from accidents, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke and Alzheimer's combined, which respectively were the third, fourth, fifth and sixth leading causes of death for Louisianans in 2017, said Dr. Courtney N. Phillips, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health.
"We grieve with the many families who have lost loved ones, and we are driven and determined to end this pandemic," she said.
Louisiana saw the fastest growth of recorded coronavirus infections than any other area in the world last spring, with the pandemic’s epicenter entrenched in the New Orleans area. The virus quickly spread throughout much of the state and spiked again in the summer months before reaching its highest level of hospitalizations and daily cases and infections than at any other time in early January.
In the Baton Rouge area, for instance, the months of December and January saw the highest number of infections than any previous time. Strained hospitals and overworked staff saw local and state officials issue stern calls for people to consider postponing holiday gatherings and adhere to social distancing measures.
Intensive care unit beds in the Lafayette area were nearing capacity at the time as well.
Tulane epidemiologist Susan Hassig said the number of deaths is “staggering” for a state with just more than 4.5 million residents and has accounted for a significant amount of so-called excess deaths.
“It’s like six (Hurricane) Katrinas happening on top of the other deaths that were already happening,” Hassig said.
Because COVID-19 tends to be more deadly for people with existing health conditions, the pandemic may have also proven more deadly in Louisiana because many more more residents suffer from obesity, diabetes and other underlying problems than most other states, she said.
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The number of people seeking care at hospitals has tapered off significantly throughout the state in recent weeks, a trend health officials credit to vaccines driving down the rate of infections.
Despite more than 1 million people receiving at least one dose of the three available vaccines, only about 13% of residents are considered fully inoculated, according to Health Department figures.
Vaccine rollouts for the public had initially focused on healthcare workers, older adults and nursing home residents who account for roughly one-third of the state’s deaths tied to COVID-19, according to state figures.
Through expanded eligibility this week for essential workers, a large portion of the adult population are now eligible to receive vaccines.
"The COVID vaccines are our exit ramp from this pandemic and I could not be more encouraged by the tremendous work already undertaken," said Dr. Joseph Kanter, State Health Officer. "I am looking forward to even more Louisianans having the opportunity to get vaccinated in the near future."
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Still, health experts and state leaders have called for caution and urged people to continue following public health safeguards, largely due to worries that emerging versions of the virus are more infectious and some could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
A greater worry has been that variants or mutations of the coronavirus could sicken vaccinated people.
“Easter’s going to be coming in just a few weeks after the kids are done spring-breaking in Texas and Florida, and it could get really ugly,” Hassig said.