Coronavirus file photo stock of death

Funeral director Tom Cheeseman loads a body into his van after making a house call on Friday, April 3, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Deaths tied to the coronavirus more than doubled in East Baton Rouge Parish from two weeks ago, with the coroner's office reporting 22 additional deaths from this past week.

The newly reported deaths between July 20 and Monday brought the parish's death toll to 315 since March and eclipsed the previous week when the coroner's office reported 10 deaths linked to the virus.

East Baton Rouge coroner reports 22 new coronavirus deaths, doubling previous week's death count

The Monday report indicates the 22 patients who died ranged in age from a 30-year-old to a 101-year-old nursing home resident. All 22 had underlying medical conditions that made them more vulnerable to worsened outcomes, said parish coroner Dr. William "Beau" Clark.

In Louisiana, the leading underlying condition in 62% of fatal cases was high blood pressure followed by diabetes, which was found in about 38% of patients. Many of these patients had more than one underlying condition, including obesity and kidney and heart disease, health officials added.

The latest Louisiana Department of Health data show more than 3,670 people in the state have died from complications linked to the COVID-19 illness, but for weeks, deaths had remained at relatively low levels in the Baton Rouge area even after new cases began their rise in mid-June once the state started the Phase 2 reopening.

Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer of Our Lady of Lake hospitals in the Baton Rouge area, said this latest rise in deaths in the parish is a beginning reflection of the most recent rise in cases this summer. It has already strained the ability of hospitals in the region to care for patients.

“We are still very full,” she said on Monday.

Our Lady of the Lake 'at capacity' and is facing staffing shortages: 'Our hospital is full'

Gov. John Bel Edwards has asked the federal government for almost 700 medical workers to fill staffing shortages that hospitals have said they need to handle greater numbers of beds due to rising cases.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, the cumulative number of cases has nearly doubled since the end of June. On Monday, the parish approached 10,000 cases since the outbreak first began to be detected.

Edwards and other state officials are trying to prevent the state’s medical system from being overwhelmed, a situation that, in other countries, contributed to high fatality rates.

While Louisiana hospitals haven’t gotten to that point, O’Neal said, OLOL has taken steps to triage other kinds of medical care by, for example, stopping elective surgeries for a second time since the outbreak began. But the hospital has also continued to admit more COVID-19 patients, adding more over the weekend.

Just 12.3% of the intensive care unit beds in the Baton Rouge-area state health Region 2 were available for any medical use on Monday — only 27 out of 219 ICU beds.

Perhaps more tellingly, the total number of ICU beds in Region 2 is well off pandemic highs in mid- to late April when hospitals were dealing with the first peak in cases. ICU beds numbered in the 360 to 380 range then and sometimes exceeded 400 for a day or two. Hospitals had more staff available after halting other kinds of care and redirecting clinic staff, state data show.

In recent weeks, some critics of the state’s response to the virus have called into question the apparent lack of deaths as case numbers rose, in particular, among younger adults less likely to suffer severe health consequences from infection.

But health experts have noted repeatedly that deaths from COVID-19 come at the end of the infection and treatment cycle, lagging new cases by weeks.

Susan Hassig, a Tulane University epidemiologist, said that with improved treatment techniques since the outbreak was first detected, wider testing, better controls in nursing homes and the changing demographics of those infected, the share of new cases that end in death should be expected to be lower than before and the rise in deaths may be more delayed.

“It’s a phenomenon we see in outbreaks and epidemics all the time, whether it’s flu, whether it’s Ebola, whether it’s norovirus, whatever it is. Because once we know the outbreak is happening, we look to try and find them sooner rather than waiting for them to show up sick,” said Hassig, whose research specialty includes infectious disease outbreaks.

At the same time, the current run in cases in the Baton Rouge area has far exceeded the peak from April, hitting another seven-day rolling average high on Monday.

O’Neal, who is an infectious disease specialist for OLOL, said it is hard to say, at this point, how the relationship between new cases and new deaths will unfold in this second wave but what happens in nursing homes will play an important role.

“The death rate will be strongly correlated to how many patients we admit from nursing homes,” she said.

Those patients tend to have underlying health conditions that make it hard for them to fight the virus and more vulnerable to death. OLOL has admitted fewer nursing home patients with COVID-19 illnesses this summer than in the spring, she said.

Nursing homes and similar facilities, however, have seen a recent rise in new cases that mirrors the overall increase in cases across Louisiana. This past week, six patients who died in East Baton Rouge were listed as residents of hospice centers or nursing homes. All but one died in those facilities and not in a hospital, the coroner said.

Still, the majority of fatal cases this past week in East Baton Rouge Parish saw patients die in hospitals. Two people died at their homes while self-isolating, according to the coroner's office.

Of nearly 30 patients who died from complications caused by the virus so far this month in East Baton Rouge Parish, the median stay in a hospital before they died was only six days, including a 38-year-old who died the same day he was admitted, according to coroner's office data.

The 30-year-old who died this past week was admitted to a hospital on July 7 and died Saturday, the coroner said.

At least three people this month died at home after testing positive for the virus, as well as a woman who spent a week self-isolating in a hotel room before dying.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.