COVID-19 vaccine

An employee at North Oaks Health System in Hammond receives COVID-19 vaccine.

When Michele Sutton, president/CEO of North Oaks Health System, got up Monday morning, the first thing she did was check how many COVID-positive patients she had in her small community hospital.

The number was 89 — and growing.

To make room for the influx of patients, the hospital had to discontinue elective surgeries, converting its recovery room into a third intensive care unit. But though there are available beds, Sutton said the trouble is staffing them, since 62 of her employees are out with COVID-19.

And as the number of patients needing care increases while the workforce shrinks, the deaths are piling up, young and old alike. Of the 14 COVID-19 deaths over the last two weeks, Sutton most were between the ages of 24 and 55.

That includes a 24-year-old from COVID-19 who died Monday morning.

“We’re not accustomed to that,” Sutton said. “We’re here to save lives.”

That sentiment was expressed by multiple hospital leaders from across the state who spoke during a press conference Monday evening, when Gov. John Bel Edwards reissued a statewide mask mandate for everyone 5 years and older.

The renewed mandate, which goes into effect Wednesday and remain so until at least Sept. 1, comes amid a wave of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that have hospitals “bursting at the seams.”

Edwards called the mandate “necessary” as the drastic spike in cases, percent positivity, and hospitalizations coupled with the state’s low vaccination rate threaten the ability of Louisiana’s hospitals to deliver care during this fourth surge of COVID.

The state reported more than 11,000 confirmed and “probable” COVID-19 cases on Monday — including more than 2,000 among children — as the highly-transmissible delta variant continues to spread.

Currently, all 64 parishes in the state have “high” levels of community spread, meaning there are either 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a test positivity rate of 10 percent or higher. Louisiana leads the nation in most new cases per capita (88.2, the highest point it has been in the state since the start of the pandemic).

Edwards called this current surge “the worst” so far in Louisiana, with no signs of slowing down. The state is expected to exceed its all-time high of 2,069 COVID-19 hospitalizations sometime this week.

In a letter to the governor, Dr. Mark Kline, physician-in-chief and chief academic officer for Children’s Hospital New Orleans, said, “Unfortunately, the worst of this COVID-19 surge is yet to come.”

“I cannot in good conscience sit by while our hospitals lose the capacity to deliver life-saving care to COVID patients and non-COVID patients alike,” Edwards told reporters.

Sutton said North Oaks, the Level 2 trauma center for Region 9, recently had to ask ambulances to avoid bringing trauma patients to the Hammond facility. The problem — there’s not another facility for them to go to.

“When I’m making rounds, it’s not uncommon to see five, six stretchers lining up in our ER hallway, with the EMS drivers standing by waiting to off-load,” she said. “But I don’t have a room to put them in. The other day we had over 20 boards and I had a waiting room of over 80 patients.”

Sutton said 50 percent of North Oaks’ patients are COVID-positive — “50 percent,” she repeated — and that the overwhelming workload has greatly affected her staff’s morale.

A team of counselors was supposed to speak with her staff Monday before having to cancel the appointment at the last minute due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our staff is demoralized because they truly believe this surge was preventable if we had all done our part with vaccinations and with masking,” Sutton said.

“Please help us,” she said later. “Healthcare workers are heroic, they’re heroes, but this has been a long 17 months, and we need you.”

Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer of Our Lady of the Lake, said her hospital had 36 COVID-19 patients a little more than two weeks ago. On Monday, that number was at 155, the most since April 2020.

When she left the hospital Monday, there were 23 patients in emergency rooms waiting for a transfer to OLOL for an ICU bed. The problem — similar to Sutton’s and other healthcare leaders in Louisiana — is not enough people to staff them.

“You spend all day trying to figure out how you can staff another one,” said O’Neal, who called the current surge “the darkest days of the pandemic.”

O’Neal said vaccinations will help with the current surge, “but they will not get us there fast enough.”

“But if we put on our masks as we have done through the last several surges, we will see a decrease in hospitalizations again, and that will give us time for the vaccinations to work,” O’Neal said.

“We are out of things in our pocket to open beds,” she said later. “We need you to open our beds for us. Please do that by getting vaccinated today… and putting your masks on today.”

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