BATON ROUGE, La. - Louisiana’s largest hospital issued an urgent warning this week, saying it has reached "the darkest days" of the COVID-19 pandemic after running out of ICU beds to treat ill patients.
"When you come inside our walls, it is quite obvious to you that these are the darkest days of this pandemic. We are no longer giving adequate care to patients," Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, told reporters on Monday.
Any non-emergency surgery that might require an overnight stay is being delayed at the hospital.
Louisiana reported 2,350 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Friday. The state reinstated a mask mandate in all indoor locations, including schools and colleges, as it experiences the highest per capita COVID-19 growth in the nation — driven by the delta variant and one of the country’s lowest vaccination rates.
Mississippi and Alabama have the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, with less than 35% of their populations fully inoculated. Louisiana stands at around 37%, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Florida, another state experiencing record hospitalizations, is closer to the national rate at 49%.
All 64 parishes in Louisiana are in the CDC’s "highest risk" category for community transmission. On Friday, Baton Rouge-area hospitals reported a total of 363 unvaccinated COVID-19 patients and another 59 patients who were vaccinated.
O’Neal said COVID-19 patients occupy one-quarter of the facility, while people with chest pains and other medical conditions are forced to sit in the emergency room waiting for an ICU bed. On Monday, 23 patients were awaiting an ICU bed.
"No one diagnosis should take up one-quarter of your hospital. It doesn’t happen," O’Neal said.
Meanwhile, the hospital of nearly 800 beds has also dealt with shortages as an increasing number of its staff has also tested positive for the virus.
"We have 67 empty beds in our hospital because we can’t find any staff," O’Neal said. "We have a federal unit on the ground who usually I meet at the (Pete Maravich Assembly Center) during a hurricane, but now they’re inside our hospital and we can’t even open beds with them because so many of our staff are out with COVID-19."
Dr. Robert Hart, chief medical officer at Louisiana’s largest health care system Ochsner Health, said Thursday that an organ transplant involving a live donor was postponed.
"You can imagine the expectations both the recipient and the donor had leading up to the surgery, and then to have to put that off," he said this week, declining to disclose the type of transplant.
Public health officials have urgently called for Americans to get vaccinated in an effort to limit the number of severely ill COVID-19 patients amid the spread of the delta variant, which has fueled the surge in cases and hospitalizations nationwide.
"We need you to open our beds for us. Please do that by getting vaccinated today, which will help us open beds in the next several weeks, and by putting your mask on today," O’Neal added.
Nationwide, the number of people now in the hospital with COVID-19 has almost quadrupled over the past month to nearly 45,000, turning the clock back to early March, according to the CDC.
That figure is still nowhere close to the nearly 124,000 people who were in the hospital at the very peak of the winter surge in January. But health experts say this wave is perhaps more worrying because it has risen more swiftly than prior ones.
FILE - A registered nurse cares for a COVID-19 patient in the improvised COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills neighborhood on July 30, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Hospital chains in Florida have also suspended elective surgeries. A South Florida facility has put beds in conference rooms, an auditorium and even a cafeteria amid the influx of virus patients.
"This is the highest number of patients Memorial has ever seen," Memorial Healthcare System’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Marc Napp said Wednesday. "It’s the sheer number coming in at the same time. There are only so many beds, so many doctors, only so many nurses."
Hospitals in neighboring Arkansas and Mississippi had a combined availability of just 31 ICU beds in record lows on Wednesday. Dr. Jonathan Wilson, chief administrative officer at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, painted the dire picture for reporters.
"Six. That’s how many ICU beds we had open this morning in the entire state — six," he emphasized.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.