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A staff member wheels a patient back to their room inside one of the covid units at North Oaks Hospital, Wednesday, August 4, 2021, in Hammond, La.

The Baton Rouge region is nearing single-day records for fatalities from COVID-19 this week as a wave of death sweeps across Louisiana, caused by the delta variant of the coronavirus.

The 12-parish capital region logged 23 deaths on Tuesday. That's the second-most of the pandemic so far, behind only the 24 deaths reported on April 21, 2020, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health. East Baton Rouge Parish and rural-suburban parishes to its east are driving the area’s rise in deaths since vaccines became available in March, the data show, with more deaths than the nine other parishes in the region combined.

“Right now we have the most cases we’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Gina Lagarde, medical director for LDH Region 9, which encompasses Tangipahoa, Livingston and St. Helena Parishes. “And when you have more cases, you’re of course going to have an increase in deaths.”

The spike in deaths around Baton Rouge is a microcosm of what’s happening statewide, as deaths catch up to a weeks-long surge in COVID-19 cases — the state’s worst of the pandemic. That surge is driven by the extremely contagious delta variant, which is running rampant in sparsely vaccinated communities and pushing Louisiana’s hospitals to the breaking point.

Statewide, Louisiana logged 98 new deaths on Tuesday, the most since 111 deaths were reported on January 17.

The 12-parish region includes both heavily-populated centers like East Baton Rouge and more rural areas like Tangipahoa. But rising deaths in the area are not exclusively being driven by the more populated centers, an Advocate analysis of LDH and U.S. Census Bureau data shows.

081821 COVID deaths Florida parishes chart

COVID hitting part of Florida Parishes hard: While Tangipahoa Parish’s population makes up just 13% of the capital-area total of 1.024 million, it has had more than 19% of the region’s deaths from COVID-19 since vaccines became available to all adults on March 28. Livingston Parish, too, has a larger share of deaths.

Since March 28, East Baton Rouge Parish has accounted for about 44.5% of deaths in the region — a proportion of fatalities commensurate with its population, which comes to 44.6% of the capital area’s roughly 1.024 million residents. But less-populated areas are also driving up regional death rates: Tangipahoa is home to 13% of capital area residents, yet it has reported 19% of the deaths in the region since March 28.

The highly-virulent delta variant thrives in unvaccinated communities where it can move easily from host to host, doctors say. It has spread swiftly in Tangipahoa Parish, where just 32.3% of residents are fully-vaccinated compared to 38% of Louisiana residents.

Patients are developing severe symptoms much faster than in previous waves, according to doctors and first responders working in the region.

“It’s hard to say at this point how the deaths in this wave compare to past waves from a statistical perspective,” said Dr. Robert Peltier, Chief Medical Officer for Hammond’s North Oaks Health System. “But now, patients seem to get sick a day or two earlier: On day four, say, as opposed to on day five.”

Scientists are still working to determine whether the more-contagious variant also makes people sicker. In Louisiana, people infected with delta have undoubtedly escalated faster than before, doctors say. It’s also more of a challenge to save them.

A COVID patient in last summer’s wave might get better after 40 days on a ventilator, according to Peltier — the most dire level of care, where a person is anesthetized and lies motionless, a tube inserted into their lungs while a machine breathes for them.

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He’s seen “very few” patients on ventilators survive past 20 days this summer, Peltier said.

The capital region’s main ambulance service is transporting more people to hospitals than ever in the pandemic. It’s also answering lots of calls for people who are scared about their symptoms and just want to be checked on, said Justin Cox, a spokesperson for the company, Acadian Ambulance Service.

“It seems like there’s been a quicker escalation from (minimal) symptoms to shortness of breath,” Cox said. “People are doing a quicker spiral than before, deteriorating quicker. ... and the variant has no rhyme or reason about who it’s infecting.”

This time, hospital deaths don’t necessarily capture the full picture of the virus’s impact, said Lagarde.

“These deaths are not just among the hospitalized,” said Lagarde. “You have people dying of COVID who have not made it to a hospital, or who have possibly died of a complication from a comorbidity resulting from COVID.”

Elsewhere in the capital region, some communities on Tuesday ended months-long pauses in new deaths from the virus. Assumption Parish counted two new deaths, the parish’s first recorded casualty to the virus since February.

Pointe Coupee Parish logged one death, its first since May.

As rules have shifted in response to the delta variant, including the reinstatement of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ mask mandate, Peltier called on residents to have faith that the rules are being changed for a reason.

“Delta changed things,” he said. “Call it a different virus, if you want. Recommendations that were made before certainly need to be altered as time goes on. But it doesn’t mean they weren’t right at the time for what we were dealing with.”

In seeing the droves of people his ambulance company has picked up and taken to the hospital in the past month, Cox is sure of one thing.

“I just know what my eyes are telling me,” said Cox, “and that is that people who receive the COVID vaccine have a better end result than people who do not receive the vaccine.”

Metro Editor Kelly P. Kissel contributed to this report. 

Editor's note: This file was updated Aug. 18 to clarify a quote from Dr. Robert Peltier.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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