Louisiana Breaks Record for COVID-19 Hospitalizations

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s COVID-19 hospitalizations surged Tuesday to record levels, with 2,112 largely unvaccinated people in hospital beds struggling and hospital leaders describing facilities overrun with patients.

The Louisiana Department of Health reported that 89% of the people hospitalized with COVID-19 weren’t vaccinated.

The state’s previous peak of people hospitalized with COVID-19 was 2,069 patients in early January, after holiday gatherings spurred a spike in cases and before vaccines became widely available. But the highly contagious delta variant of the virus is propelling record-breaking numbers of hospitalizations at a faster pace.

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Health officials say the influx of COVID-19 patients is damaging hospitals’ ability to care for people with heart attacks, injuries from car accidents and other health conditions.

“We’re asking for ambulances not to come to us, to divert to another facility. There’s not another facility for them to go to,” said Michele Sutton, president and CEO of North Oaks Health System in Hammond. “So, when I’m making rounds, it’s not uncommon to see five, six stretchers lining up in our emergency room hallway with the EMS drivers standing by waiting to offload, but I don’t have a room to put them in.”

Louisiana has the highest per capita COVID-19 case growth in the nation, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards. The state — which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country — is confirming thousands of new cases of the disease each day, and seeing the death toll continue to grow larger. Another 59 new COVID-19 deaths were reported Tuesday by the health department.

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Hospital leaders across Louisiana describe staff shortages, emergency rooms packed beyond capacity and non-emergency surgeries for cancer patients, knee injuries and other problems sidelined until the pressure eases.

Sutton said 50% of her hospital’s patients have COVID-19, and the facility discontinued all elective surgeries to turn its recovery room into a third intensive care unit for coronavirus patients. She said more than 60 of the health system’s employees were unable to work because they had contracted the illness. The hospital can’t use all 330 of the beds it has available because it has too few health care workers.

Hoping to flatten Louisiana’s fourth COVID-19 spike, Edwards announced Monday he was reenacting a statewide mask mandate for anyone 5 and older, regardless of vaccine status, when they are inside a school, church, business, government building or other public indoor locations.

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But even as the Democratic governor’s face covering requirement takes effect Wednesday, Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry was offering guidance on how to avoid it.

Landry sent an email Monday to his employees with two sample request letters for parents to seek a philosophical or religious exemption from the governor’s mask mandate at schools — or from a vaccine mandate if one was enacted.

“I support your religious liberties and your right to conscientiously object,” the attorney general wrote to his staff, in an email provided by Landry’s office.

Still, hospital leaders praised Edwards’ requirement, as their facilities are packed with COVID-19 patients.

Shreveport-based Willis-Knighton Health System said it “is experiencing capacity at all four acute care hospitals and emergency departments backed up with dozens of patients awaiting beds that are not available.”

“Unvaccinated COVID patients who are younger and healthier, including pregnant women and children, are the greatest cause of this latest surge,” health system spokesperson Terrie Roberts said in a statement.

In Baton Rouge, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center reached a new all-time high in COVID-19 patients Tuesday, after admitting 28 more overnight. Louisiana’s largest hospital had 163 COVID-19 patients by Tuesday morning and announced it will require coronavirus immunization for all of its workers, though that requirement will be phased in over months. The hospital brought in nearly three dozen health care workers from other states to help it handle the patient load.

Southeast Louisiana-based Ochsner Health said it has more than 600 people hospitalized with the illness across its Louisiana hospitals, with hospitalizations of children continuing to edge up.

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