NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana’s health department on Tuesday reported its second-highest total of new COVID-19 cases since early January as well as the highest number of hospitalizations from the virus since early February, when vaccines were not yet widely available.
Hospitalizations caused by COVID-19 had been consistently under 300 since mid-May but began a steep climb in early July and have now reached 1,390. Health officials attribute the rise to the highly contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates.
The state, an early Southern hot spot for the disease in 2020, is experiencing its fourth surge of the pandemic, stretching hospital staffs thin and prompting increasingly urgent calls for people to get vaccinated. About 36% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. The state reported 6,797 new COVID-19 cases and 20 more deaths Tuesday.
Some Republican members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation have become more outspoken in promoting the vaccines following months of misinformation in which many conservative lawmakers and pundits have actively stoked vaccine hesitancy.
U.S. Rep. Julia Letlow, whose husband died of complications related to COVID-19, posted Tuesday on Twitter: “My story is only one of thousands across our state and our county. I encourage you to talk to your friends and neighbors who have been impacted by COVID and listen to their stories. My prayer is that not one more person will have to lose their life to this horrific virus.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy encouraged vaccination during a weekly conference call with reporters.
“We’ve seen for a year the vaccine is very safe, with an occasional side effect, but all manageable. And then we see the problems associated with coronavirus … It’s just a risk/benefit ratio. Look at the safety, talk to your loved ones, talk to your doctor,” Cassidy said.
In the New Orleans suburb of Jefferson Parish, officials held a morning news conference to again urge people to get vaccinated. Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng said new cases are evident in areas of the parish where vaccination rates are low.
“Our health care system is busting at the seams,” Jefferson Parish Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich said.
At a weekly news briefing in New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell noted that local hospitals have begun suspending nonemergency surgeries that would require hospital admission and said people should again be donning masks indoors to stall the spread. Cantrell issued an indoor mask advisory last week.
“If you have not yet received the vaccine and this shocks you into doing it, that’s great, that helps us,” Tidwell said. But, he added that it can be weeks before someone who gets a first shot will be fully vaccinated. “So right now, the message: Of course, get your shot if you haven’t, and for God’s sake wear a mask.”
Also Tuesday, the Ruston Daily Leader reported that Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker was hospitalized with pneumonia related to COVID-19. Walker and his wife recently were diagnosed with so-called “breakthrough” cases — both had been fully vaccinated. Walker was hospitalized after their doctor recommended precautionary X-rays and he was found to have pneumonia in his right lung.
“If we had not had the vaccine, I’m not sure what would have happened,” Walker said. “I sure as heck would not have wanted to go through this without the vaccine.” Medical officials have repeatedly said that vaccinated people with breakthrough infections usually have less severe cases.
The surge prompted Louisiana’s Department of Corrections on Tuesday to suspend visitation and volunteer programs at its eight state-run prisons until at least Aug. 16.
“In lieu of visitation, the Department will continue to offer two free phone calls per week to ensure inmates have continued connection to family and friends during this event,” the department news release said. “In addition, video calling remains available for a fee.”