ATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The peak of Louisiana’s fourth and latest coronavirus surge could be weeks away, the state’s chief health officer said Tuesday, calling that a “catastrophic” scenario for hospitals already overrun with COVID-19 patients that are increasingly having to turn away people with other life-threatening emergencies such as heart attacks or strokes.
Dr. Joseph Kanter’s remarks to a state higher education board were the latest in a series of grim warnings from state and local health officials as infections fueled by the delta variant increase by thousands and state hospitalization numbers hit record numbers daily.
And they came on a day when the state hit another daily record in the number of hospitalizations, at 2,859. The number of newly reported virus-related deaths was 93 (80 confirmed and 13 labeled probable), the highest daily death count since Jan. 8, according to the health department.
Kanter stressed that the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus is difficult to model, so it’s hard to determine when Louisiana’s latest coronavirus surge will begin to lessen. But models so far have painted a “doomsday” picture.
“I can’t say when we’re going to peak. There’s just no good, no confidence-inspiring modeling to look at. I will say, God forbid if we don’t peak within a week or two. It’s just simply going to be a catastrophic situation for hospitals. There’s just no way to remotely sustain that,” Kanter told the Board of Regents, the state’s top higher education policymaking board, in an update as campuses ready for the return of students.
Kanter’s morning remarks followed similarly grim messages from authorities in St. Tammany Parish. The suburban parish on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, across the lake from New Orleans, is in an area of the state where health department figures show only about 35% of the population is fully vaccinated, and where resistance to mask mandates has been strong.
Statewide, about 38% of the population is 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 500% over the last month, Kanter said, with nearly 45% of Louisiana’s residents starting the vaccine series.
Ever-growing case numbers and the uncertain future have already led to one major fall event in New Orleans to cancel — the Jazz and Heritage Festival, which had been postponed from its usual spring dates. Another major tourist draw, the French Quarter Festival is still set for Sept. 30-Oct. 2. A city spokesperson said authorities are currently leaving it to festival organizers to decide whether to hold the event.
Officials around the state continue to sound the alarm about rising COVID-19 case numbers.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. Our hospitals are being overwhelmed,” Dr. Michael Hill, of St. Tammany Parish Health System, said at a Monday news conference. ”You don’t believe me? Come by the ER. There are lines now, around the building because there are no seats available in our waiting area.”
The state has hit new record-breaking benchmarks of hospitalized COVID-19 patients each day for nearly a week.
“It’s a real dire situation, not so much for physical space. Hospitals will make physical space where they can. They will double up rooms where they have to,” Kanter said. “There’s just not enough qualified staff in the state right now to care for all these patients.”
Kanter said he worked in a New Orleans emergency room last weekend. He described a heart attack patient trying to find a hospital with space for treatment.
“This patient had to bypass six separate hospitals to get to us with an acute massive heart attack, which means the outcomes are going to be worse for that individual,” Kanter said.
A similar point was made at the St. Tammany Parish news conference, where Dr. Jacques Guillot, of Lakeview Medical Center, lamented that hospital’s inability to take in transfers.
“A lot of the outlying rural hospitals don’t have a cardiac catheterization lab, they don’t have medical subspecialists. And they rely on us to take transfers in when patients need a higher level of care,” Guillot said. The hospital has been unable to accept transfers of heart attack and stroke victims. “We just don’t have the room to take them in.”