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Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist Jonathan White administers medication to a COVID-19 patient before intubating her on  July 21, 2020, at Lafayette General Medical Center in Lafayette, La. A shortage of ICU nurses has led hospitals in south Louisiana, including those in Baton Rouge, to face limits on ICU beds for coronavirus patients. To cope, some hospitals are cutting back on other services.  

Cases of the new coronavirus in the Baton Rouge metro saw the highest rise in monthly infections in December, more than any previous month since the viral outbreak gained a foothold in Louisiana last spring.

State public health officials warn the rapid spread of the virus combined with people likely dropping their guard during the holiday season could see even higher rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks.

Hospitals across the state in December had already surpassed record-level admissions above any other point of the pandemic. 

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday.  “I’m not asking people to do things forever, but there is a period of time, and I think it’s measured in months, that we need to buckle down.”

The ongoing effort to vaccinate people in health care and long-term care facilities in recent weeks has offered a glimpse of sunsetting the pandemic. State leaders on Thursday also announced some people over 70 will have access to vaccines starting Monday.

The timing of the vaccination rollouts could not come soon enough.

Louisiana reported more than 4,200 cases Wednesday — as hospitalizations marched past record-levels statewide, according to the state Department of Health.

In the 12-parish capital region, cases rose a full 36.5% in December and led to more than 16,700 people infected. That's nearly more than the previous four months combined and higher than any other month on record, according to state figures. More than 200 people have also died this month in the region.

Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes are mirroring similar trends as other parts of the state, namely busy hospitals and high infection rates.

As hospitalizations continue rising, state health leaders say their focus remains on reducing needless deaths and hospitalizations until enough people are inoculated.

“We’re getting close to 8,000 deaths in the state, and that’s clearly unacceptable,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, who heads the coronavirus response at the Louisiana Department of Health. “This virus doesn’t spread unless we let it.”

Though more people are seeking care at hospitals than ever before, medical facilities have been reporting fewer deaths and more patients surviving due to advances in treatment and a better understanding of the illness COVID-19.

“We’re able to manage patients better so the mortality is not increasing but the cases are,” said Dr. Aldo Russo, the regional medical director at Oschner Baton Rouge.

Though older adults and people with underlying health problems are more vulnerable to serve complications caused by COVID-19, hospitals have also seen a rise in younger, healthier people who require intensive care. And some don’t survive.

Adults ages 18 to 29 make up the largest share of people contracting the virus in Louisiana, followed by people between the ages of 30 and 39, according to the health department. Of the nearly 7,400 deaths in Louisiana linked to the virus, just shy of 5% — or 365 people — were under the age of 49.

“It may not be a big number, but when you add it up and the impact it has on people’s lives and families, it’s huge,” Russo said.

Though the vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer don’t offer immediate protection after the initial dose, health experts say it leads to some level of immunization within a few weeks. The high-level efficacy that shields people from severe illness comes about two weeks after receiving the second shot.

That’s especially important for certain health care workers who are at high risk of contracting the virus, which could also diminish hospitals’ ability to care for sick patients.

More than 45,000 people in health care and long-term care homes have already been injected with the first of two doses of vaccines, according to state leaders. They expect those initiatives will take a few weeks to complete.

Following the first phase of vaccines, essential workers, such as people working in grocery stores, teachers, will be “on deck” to receive vaccinations in the next phase of immunizations, Edwards said.

“We want to preserve hospital capacity, and we want to save lives,” the governor said.


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad