BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The number of people in Louisiana hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday reached heights exceeding the state’s summer surge of the coronavirus disease, a sobering statistic that mutes some of the excitement surrounding this week’s first virus vaccinations.
Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease expert at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, said the Baton Rouge hospital admitted the largest number of COVID-19 patients over 24 hours than it’s seen in a similar period since July.
“I hate hitting that point because we know that it usually marks a tough set of weeks for us,” O’Neal said. “Our hospital’s full. Every hospital in the state is full. I worry about my family. I worry about small communities that don’t have access to care.”
Louisiana’s health department reported 1,602 patients hospitalized across the state with the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus as the state grapples with its third surge in cases since the pandemic began. More than 6,600 people in the state have died from COVID-19 since March, according to state data.
But this time, the surge comes amid the glimmer of hope offered by vaccines, which began being distributed this week across the nation. Thousands of Louisiana’s hospital workers across 71 facilities have received them so far.
Maggie Robert, a social worker in Our Lady of the Lake’s emergency department, has been working with COVID-19 patients since the outbreak began. She had a mild case of COVID-19 herself, and she lined up on Thursday’s opening day of vaccinations at her hospital to get a shot.
“We’ve seen so many patients that don’t have mild cases, and we’ve seen patients that are very young die, and we’ve seen patients that are very old die,” Robert said. “You never know if you get it again, if you can get it again, what’s going to happen. And I’m going to do whatever I can to keep myself safe.”
She said she’ll encourage “everyone I know” to get vaccinated when shots are available to them.
“I know not everyone believes in vaccines, but we’ve come so far in modern medicine,” Robert said.
Those receiving vaccines will need to get a second dose within weeks.
Louisiana said it received 39,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in its first shipments. Gov. John Bel Edwards said at least 7,000 vaccinations at hospitals have been documented in a state data system so far, though he said likely many more have received shots.
“I can’t tell you when those doses will all be injected into someone’s arm, but it’s going to be as quickly as possible,” said the Democratic governor, who watched vaccinations being administered at Our Lady of the Lake and visited the COVID-19 unit there.
In a helpful surprise, some vaccine vials have contained an extra, unexpected sixth dose. It’s not clear how many extra doses that’s given hospitals to administer, but Dr. Joe Kanter, Louisiana’s top public health official, said hospitals are using every drop included in the vials, calling them “angel doses.”
“We’re getting every bit worth of it,” he said.
While other states have reported learning they’ll receive fewer vaccine doses in next week’s shipment than they’d been promised by the Trump administration, Edwards said Louisiana hasn’t received any indication it would get less than the 40,000 expected next week.
Dr. Takeisha Davis, CEO of New Orleans East Hospital, described the scene at her hospital as she and others were vaccinated: “We’ve had tears of joy, different from in March and April when there were tears of despair.”
Beyond hospital workers, people who live and work in Louisiana nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are expected to begin receiving vaccinations after Christmas, if a second vaccine candidate from Moderna receives federal approval shortly.
Most people, however, will have to wait months before they can be immunized.
“Our public health measures are key to flattening the curve until we can get vaccine out to the majority of our population,” said Davis, who attended an afternoon briefing with Edwards. “We are begging you to help us help you by continuing to mask up, and stay physically distant and, please, do not gather in large groups for the holiday.”