Louisiana is approaching a ‘major failure’ of its healthcare system as hospitals get dangerously close to capacity

louisiana covid hospital
Clinicians work to intubate a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on August 10, 2021.
  • Hospitals are at least 70% full in all but one region in Louisiana.
  • Several regions have just a handful of ICU beds left amid the state's dramatic COVID-19 surge.
  • State health officials warn of catastrophic outcomes, such as patients being denied critical care.
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Eight months after vaccines became available, Louisiana faces its most dire coronavirus surge yet.

Around 3,000 people in the state were in the hospital with COVID-19 as of Sunday - a five-fold increase over the last month. The state's record before vaccines came out was around 2,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations at one time.

"We are rapidly getting to the point where we could have a major failure of our healthcare delivery system," Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a Friday press briefing. "There's some people out there whose care is being delayed to the point where, for them, it's already failed."

When hospitals reach capacity, doctors have to start turning away patients - in some cases determining who lives and who dies. Already, many large hospitals in Louisiana are delaying non-emergency surgeries and denying patient transfers, and some patients have had to wait several hours for emergency room beds.

"We're putting off cases that we would consider to be urgent," Dr. Catherine O'Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake hospital in Baton Rouge, told Insider. "People who have cancer, for instance - we would never put you off. You have to get your cancer diagnosed. You have to get your cancer taken out. But this week we saw that we were making those decisions because we just didn't have room to admit that patient and have them take up an ICU bed."

The situation inside hospitals is far worse than anything Louisiana saw in the pandemic before now, she added.

"There's no photo or image or even video scene that captures the unrelenting pace," O'Neal said. "It's like taking a picture of a marathon runner."

The chart below shows how Louisiana's hospitalization surge compares to last winter:

louisiana hospitalizations covid

This surge is fueled by the Delta variant, which may be two to three times as contagious as the original version of the virus, according to one estimate.

Louisiana's low vaccination rate is also a major factor. Less than 39% of the state's residents are fully vaccinated, and unvaccinated people account for 90% of its COVID-19 hospitalizations right now, according to data from Louisiana's health department.

'This is not something that's happened before'

Louisiana hospital covid
Healthcare workers are seen inside the COVID Intensive Care Unit in North Oaks Hospital in Hammond, Louisiana, on August 13, 2021.

At the moment, four hospital regions in Louisiana - South Central Louisiana, Acadiana, Southwest Louisiana, and Central Louisiana - have just a handful of available ICU beds each. In eight out of nine regions, hospital beds are at least 70% full. And in South Central Louisiana, where hospitals have reached 83% capacity, just 100 hospital beds are currently available.

"This is not something that's happened before," Louisiana's state health officer, Dr. Joe Kanter, said in the Friday briefing. "We've never been to a place where not one hospital, but almost every hospital in the state, is at a point where they simply can't meet the demand that comes in."

He added that 58 hospitals have reached out to the state asking for additional doctors and nurses.

O'Neal said ambulances are also facing abnormally long wait times outside her hospital in Baton Rouge, which can further jeopardize a patient's health.

"Usually an ambulance comes in, drops off, and leaves and you would never stack up more than two or three," she said. "But now it's not uncommon to see five to seven out there waiting."

The state is still trying to avoid a lockdown

louisiana covid vaccine
Debbie Bonnett (left) administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up clinic at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans on August 14, 2021.

Gov. Edwards temporarily reinstated Louisiana's indoor mask mandate on August 4, as COVID-19 hospitalizations hit record highs. But the mandate is set to end in early September, and Louisiana hasn't put any capacity caps on businesses or gatherings. Louisiana's school districts all resumed in-person leaning for the new school year.

Rather than implement any new policies or mandates, the state has focused on boosting vaccination rates.

Louisiana has seen a three-fold increase in its vaccination rate over the last month. The state is now administering 18,600 daily doses, on average - up from 6,100 daily doses in mid-July. But 67% of people ages 18 to 29 in Louisiana have yet to receive their first shot. So Edwards announced Monday that Louisiana will give $100 debit cards to the first 75,000 college students who get vaccinated.

Healthcare workers are also pleading with residents to get vaccinated.

"The majority of COVID patients that we've seen who are unvaccinated have regret," O'Neal said. "There's so much misinformation and they're sort of surprised that they're in this situation because the reason that they didn't get vaccinated, for the most part, was because they thought they would be OK."

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