Louisiana hospitals, medical staff stretched thin amid virus

By MELINDA DESLATTE and REBECCA SANTANA

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As Louisiana’s coronavirus outbreak continues to worsen, the state’s hospitals and health care workers worry if they’ll have enough people and equipment to meet the ever-growing demands of an epidemic expected to hit its peak in the state over the next two weeks.

In Baton Rouge, nurse Christen Hyde has been treating patients infected with the virus at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, which is rapidly standing up more COVID-19 units. The number of cases shows no sign of slowing down. The hospital has gone from one unit dedicated to coronavirus patients to seven, Hyde said.

“It’s growing every day,” Hyde said.

Nearly 10,300 people have tested positive for the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus, according to figures released Friday by Louisiana’s health department. The state has the nation’s third-highest rate of coronavirus infections per capita, authorities say. About 17% of Louisiana residents confirmed to have the virus are hospitalized, and nearly one-third of those have respiratory problems requiring a ventilator, the data shows.

Friday brought another jump in Louisiana’s death toll from the coronavirus. The state said 370 virus-related deaths were confirmed, an increase of 60 from a day earlier.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said modeling used by the White House suggests more than 1,800 Louisianans could die from the virus, with the state reaching its worst period of deaths around April 10. The Democratic governor has warned the hard-hit New Orleans region is projected to run out of ventilators by Tuesday and hospital beds five days later.

Dr. David Becnel, a pulmonary critical care doctor at the Tulane University School of Medicine, sees patients at three New Orleans area hospitals and said all are trying to get more ventilators as supplies shrink. Hospitals are looking at using one ventilator for more than one person or retrofitting other breathing devices into ventilators, in case that’s needed.

“I think everybody is concerned about running out of resources,” he said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. Edwards has ordered schools closed, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery and shuttered businesses deemed nonessential like gyms, hair salons and bars through the end of April in hopes of lessening the state’s outbreak.

While a great deal of attention has been paid on the number of elderly patients stricken by the disease, Hyde said most of the patients she’s seen have been younger, 30- to 50-years-old.

“With these people it’s so sudden and unexpected and they have so much of their life left to live,” she said. “This disease, it’s such a rapid, progressing disease … In days they’re passing. It’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible.”

Testing resources remain strained, giving only a limited idea of the virus’s footprint in Louisiana. But testing capacity continues to grow, and a backlog of results from commercial labs, hospitals and small testing sites are pouring into state authorities for confirmation.

At Tulane’s medical school, employees are processing coronavirus tests in the school’s molecular pathology lab, which was converted from a research lab in recent days.

“It’s clear that communities and countries that have dealt as well as they could with this challenge have had a greater capacity to test than many areas,” said Patrick Delafontaine, executive dean of Tulane University’s School of Medicine.

Despite Edwards’ limit on public gatherings, New Orleans Police Superintendent Sean Ferguson told reporters Friday the department has responded to more than 800 calls regarding gatherings of people in just over a week. At least one person has been arrested for organizing a group event, and Ferguson said there may be more when people refuse to disperse.

As Louisiana’s death toll rises, New Orleans’ old-fashioned steamboat Natchez on Friday commemorated the late jazz great Ellis Marsalis Jr., who died from pneumonia brought on by the coronavirus. The Natchez played a calliope tribute, the first time the calliope has been heard in weeks after the boat stopped its tours.


Santana reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writer Stacey Plaisance contributed to this report.