BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As a slow distribution of the coronavirus vaccine rolls out across Louisiana, hospital leaders warned Wednesday that they are running dangerously short of beds because of the influx of COVID-19 patients, a situation only expected to worsen after the holidays.
Gov. John Bel Edwards described state efforts to improve the pace of vaccinations, but he and public health officials noted nothing would happen quickly enough to combat the state's coronavirus outbreak except the precautionary measures they've been preaching for months.
The Democratic governor, whose current virus restrictions expire next week, said he didn't know whether he'd try to toughen the rules in place or renew them as is. New Orleans announced new restrictions Wednesday.
“If they're not following mitigation measures and restrictions that are in place, what makes you believe that if I impose more restrictions and mitigation measures, that they're going to follow those? And this is the dilemma for me," said Edwards, at one point his voice rising in frustration and emotion.
He added: “We're either going to do the right thing, or we're not. And if we don't do better, we're going to watch a lot more of our fellow Louisiana brothers and sisters die.”
Nearly 7,300 deaths in the state have been confirmed from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus, according to the health department. The state has been averaging more than 2,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 daily for weeks.
Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, said the Baton Rouge hospital is admitting record numbers of COVID-19 patients, forcing people to wait for beds in the emergency department.
“It seems to be our most sustained peak yet and doesn’t look like it’s stopping,” O'Neal said. “We are running out of beds for these patients, and we need this COVID surge to go down and to go down soon.”
Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas and Chief Medical Officer Robert Hart said the Ochsner system and its affiliates had about 640 COVID-19 patients as of midday Wednesday, an increase they attributed to the virus being spread during parties and get-togethers early in the holiday season.
“This is not even the Christmas spike yet,” Hart said.
He said surgeons will be asked next week to not schedule non-emergency surgeries for anyone who might have to be admitted to the hospital as a result.
Hospitals report have continued to report shortages for the increasing patient load, complicated by temporary absences caused by staff members getting sick with COVID-19. O'Neal said Our Lady of the Lake had 50 employees out with the illness Wednesday.
In New Orleans, officials said they will forbid most public gatherings or special events involving people who are not members of the same household beginning Friday. It’s a tightening of current restrictions that limit indoor special events to 75 people and outdoor events to 150. The new rules also will limit occupancy inside businesses to 25%; attendance at sporting events will be limited to 4% of usual capacity.
The harsher restrictions take effect Friday at 6 a.m. Mayor LaToya Cantrell and city health director Jennifer Avegno said the changes were driven by the percentage of positive COVID-19 test results doubling over the last week, surpassing 10%. Rising positivity rates had already led to a shutdown of indoor bar service last week in the city.
Meanwhile, vaccinations continued across Louisiana. State guidance increased vaccination eligibility this week to include more health care workers and people 70 years old and older, in addition to the immunizations available to hospital workers, EMS staff and people who live and work in nursing homes. But the pace is slow.
Louisiana has received about 210,000 vaccine doses so far, and the health department said about 57,000 vaccines have been reported as administered. Edwards said he's not pleased with the speed of vaccinations, but believed interest was growing and logistics were improving.
“When you first start something like this, it isn't going to be as smooth as you want it to be, but it's getting better,” the governor said.
McGill reported from New Orleans.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.