Louisiana hospitals at ‘breaking point’ with COVID-19 surge
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s hospitals are struggling with an avalanche of coronavirus cases that threatens to crater the state’s health care delivery system if the latest surge of COVID-19 patients doesn’t lessen soon, Gov. John Bel Edwards warned Friday.
The Democratic governor’s increasingly sounded the alarm about the risks of overloaded facilities with too few staff to handle the crush of people with the coronavirus illness on top of the car crash victims, heart attack patients and others. But the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 continues to climb, setting daily records for the last two weeks and reaching 2,907 patients Friday.
While Louisiana has received some federal disaster emergency medical teams, Edwards cautioned the staff shortages can’t all be filled and hospitals can only reshuffle nonemergency surgeries for so long without doing real damage to health care.
“Everybody should be clear-eyed about this. Our opportunities to increase our capacity are on the margins. They’re not big numbers, and we are rapidly getting to the point where we could have a major failure of our health care delivery system,” the governor said. “And there are some people out there whose care is being delayed to the point where, for them, it’s already failed.”
Trying to boost the state’s low vaccination rates, Edwards announced the state will give $100 cash cards to the first 75,000 college students who newly get the shots. The governor said he’s targeting a demographic that is seeing some of the worst infection rates in Louisiana’s latest surge.
“Students want an in-person college experience. They want as much normalcy as possible. To safely accomplish that we need more shots in arms,” he said.
Ninety-one percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, according to state health department data.
Dr. Amanda Logue, chief medical officer at Ochsner Lafayette General, which has five hospitals in the Acadiana region, described the situation as “close to a breaking point.”
COVID-19 patients are taking up one-third of their hospital beds, and that number keeps rising. Logue said it’s not uncommon for people to wait seven to nine hours for an emergency room bed. The health system has delayed more than 100 nonemergency surgeries each week, she said, affecting people who don’t have the virus by crowding out their ability to get care.
Those include procedures for people with “slow-growing tumors. These are aneurysms. These are bypass surgeries, heart bypass, and hysterectomies,” Logue said. “They’re certainly not minor to the person that’s waiting on them.”
If the surge of coronavirus patients grows larger, she said next steps would involve shutting down clinic visits to anything but the most urgent needs so the doctors, nurses and other health care staff can go to hospital bedsides.
Still, Edwards said he isn’t inclined to add new restrictions on businesses and gatherings, saying if people follow his statewide mask mandate and get vaccinated, that should lower the rate of infections.
Amid the virus surge, organizers of the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans and the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in Lafayette announced they are canceling the fall events and pushing them to the spring, joining the cancellation of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Only 38% of Louisiana’s population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus illness, among the bottom five states in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the numbers of people seeking their first shot has increased dramatically over the last month.
In addition to the new vaccine incentive for college students, Louisiana already handed out $2.3 million in cash prizes and college scholarships through a vaccine lottery aimed at encouraging people to get the shots. The winner of the $1 million grand prize was announced Friday: Janet Mann, 63, a retired teacher from Bossier City.
Demand for the vaccine has strengthened enough that hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and other health providers administering the vaccines across Louisiana have started sharply increasing the doses they’re ordering.
“There was a 440% increase in the number of vaccine doses ordered the first full week of August compared to the first full week in July,” said Department of Health spokesperson Aly Neel.
AP reporter Rebecca Santana contributed to this report from New Orleans.