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As Dr. Daniel Burch does sign interpretation, left, Dr. Amanda Logue speaks about her hospital in Lafayette, La, during Gov. John Bel Edwards update of the status of the state in regard to COVID-19 Thursday July 23, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. The state will remain in Phase 2 for at least another two weeks. (Photo by Bill Feig, The Advocate)

Hampered by dwindling staff numbers, hospital leaders across the state on Thursday warned they are at or near capacity, amid a surge in cases that made Louisiana the 12th and smallest state to confirm 100,000 infections.

The wave of infections that continued climbing this week comes as Gov. John Bel Edwards signs an order to keep the state in a modified version of its Phase 2 reopening plan – one that shutters bars and mandates masks when people are out in public – for two more weeks.

The governor said Thursday he doesn’t “want to go back to Phase 1,” which would involve reducing capacity at restaurants and other businesses, or even to a stay-at-home directive.

“But what we cannot have happen here is we lose the ability to deliver lifesaving care in our hospitals,” he said.

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Hospitals in several regions of the state appear to be heading in that direction. And the governor asked the federal government for several hundred health care workers to aid shortages at facilities across the state. 

Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, one of the state’s largest hospitals, halted some non-emergency medical procedures and said Thursday they were at capacity. Dr. Manley Jordan, chief medical officer at Lake Charles’ largest hospital, Memorial Health System, said in an interview the hospital has seen COVID-19 patients jump from zero in late May to 58 Thursday. He said he’s worried about the capacity of the hospitals’ intensive care unit, but more importantly, whether the facility will have enough nurses and other health professionals to care for patients.

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“As of today we’re treading water,” he said. “What’s concerning is where we’re going to be in a few days.”

Executives at the largest hospitals in the Lafayette region – Lafayette General and Our Lady of Lourdes – joined Edwards at a press conference to issue sobering warnings about their capacity.

Dr. Amanda Logue, chief medical officer at Lafayette General Medical Center, said “our hospital is full and our ICU is full.” The hospital has transferred patients to as far as Mississippi, she said, and is quickly running out of space and staff. Logue added the system, which typically welcomes transfers into its facilities, has declined 87% of the requests for transfers into its hospitals this month.

The five-hospital system had 20 COVID-19 patients six weeks ago, and as of yesterday had 143, she said.

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Dr. Henry Kaufman, chief medical officer of Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center, said for the past two weeks the hospital has almost completely halted elective procedures, including serious surgeries like heart bypasses and early stage cancer operations.

“Our hospital is full,” Kaufman said. “Our ICU is at or near capacity. This has significantly affected our normal operations.”

Hospitalizations were relatively flat Thursday, but at the highest point since May 1. The state confirmed 2,300 more cases, making it the 12th state to hit the 100,000 case mark. The other 11 states are all much larger; the closest in size is Massachusetts, which has 2.2 million more residents.

The case count also gave Louisiana the dubious distinction of No. 1 in the country for cases per capita, surpassing New York, according to a New York Times analysis.

Staffing has become a key concern of health leaders in Louisiana. Kaufman said nurses are contracting the virus as it spreads through the community, which puts them out of commission for at least 10 days. That means nurses and other workers are getting burnt out because of grueling hours, he said.

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Edwards said he requested almost 700 health care workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency last week to stem a growing staff shortage. That includes 200 nurses, 250 ICU nurses, 150 patient care attendants, 30 licensed practical nurses, 10 lab technicians, 40 respiratory therapy technicians and 10 phlebotomists. That request came after Edwards consulted health leaders from across the state.

FEMA told the governor to first make that request to other states, but Louisiana got zero hits, indicating the staff shortage is being experienced across the U.S.

Edwards noted the state still has staffing for 60 beds – about half of which are filled – at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, which the state spent millions turning into a temporary hospital for less acute patients.

Unlike in March and April, the state does not appear to be at risk of running out of ventilators and beds. The state stockpiled ventilators, which are used less frequently than initially thought, and has helped hospitals create surge plans at their facilities.

Edwards said his bigger concern is staffing, and it’s increasingly difficult to draw staff from other parts of the country. He said he discussed the issue with Vice President Mike Pence last week when he visited LSU.

“Even if for some strange reason that’s totally incomprehensible to me you don’t care about COVID-19 you should care about that hospital capacity when you have an automobile accident or when you have your heart attack or your stroke or your mother or grandmother has that stroke,” Edwards said. “Because we're talking about the same staff, the same beds, all over Louisiana.”

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