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Ochsner: COVID-19 Hospitalizations Up 400% In A Month, As Delta Variant Spreads

Phoebe Jones
A vaccinator administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. March 4, 2021.

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients have soared in the last month at Ochsner Health hospitals in Louisiana, in a trend that officials say is escalating as the state faces a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

At a press conference late Wednesday, Oschner officials detailed staggering statistics.

  • Hospitalizations for people hospitalized with COVID-19 jumped from 74 to 331 last month, an increase of more than 400 percent. Almost all of them — between 90 and 95 percent — are not vaccinated.

  • The average age of those hospitalized has dropped since the first wave of the pandemic, when it was 69, down to 55. Officials said 50 percent of new COVID-19 cases are among people aged 20 to 40.

  • So-called “breakthrough” cases are also rising. Ochsner hospitals are seeing about 50 cases a day of COVID-19 in people who have been vaccinated, with about 5 of those admitted to hospitals.

  • Cases involving children more than doubled. Children aged 17 and under now make up 16 percent of COVID-19 cases, though Oschner is not seeing them hospitalized. They made up just 7 percent of cases two weeks ago.

“It’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Warner Thomas, the president and CEO of Ochsner Health, the largest hospital system in Louisiana, in a call with reporters on Wednesday. “People get into the hospital every day with COVID, And people die every day from COVID. And it's avoidable.”

Also on Wednesday, Louisiana posted its third-highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a day since the pandemic began, and New Orleans mayor Latoya Cantrell announced a new advisory for all people, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask in public.

The soaring rates match those across Louisiana as a new surge in COVID-19, driven in part by the more infectious Delta variant, threatens hospital capacity and kills people.

Officials said the fact that most cases are occurring overwhelmingly in unvaccinated people shows that the vaccines are both safe and effective.

“This isn't our first surge, it's not our second, it's not our third, it's our fourth surge,” said Dr. Katherine Baumgarten, Ochsner’s medical director of infection prevention and control. “And the difference here is that we could have prevented this or we should be preventing it through vaccination.”

The growth is most acute in the Baton Rouge area and the Northshore, two hotspots for diminishing capacity among all hospitals in the state. Hospitals are trying to provide routine care on top of surging COVID-19 cases and a national nursing shortage.

“It is stressing our staff, it’s stressing our physicians, it's stressing our capacity for beds,” Thomas said.

About 20 to 30 percent of Ochsner patients testing positive for COVID-19 are experiencing long-term health implications such as fatigue, headache, respiratory issues, neurological issues, regardless of whether they became ill enough to be hospitalized, Thomas said.

He said there was one positive statistic to report: vaccinations have climbed about 10 to 15 percent over the past few weeks.

About half of adults in Louisiana have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Among staff at Ochsner, the rate is only a little higher: about 61 percent.

“Every day we're vaccinating more people in our workforce, but it's not enough,” Thomas said.

Oschner will mandate vaccines for staff once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves the COVID-19 vaccines, he said.

The vaccines are currently under an Emergency Use Authorization, which is designed to quickly disperse lifesaving medicines to the public that already meet rigorous testing standards. Thomas said Ochsner is worried about possible legal action if it requires the vaccines before they’re fully approved.

“Our hope is the EUA will be lifted shortly,” Thomas said.

Oschner will be rolling out new protocols this week for unvaccinated staff in the meantime, Thomas said. The health system has held dozens of events to promote vaccination among staff and answer questions about the vaccines. In a call this week with about 100 staff, Thomas said about 80 percent wanted the hospital system to mandate vaccinations for employees, and 20 percent did not.

“But the 20 percent’s pretty vocal,” he said.

Ochsner hospitals are also rolling out a new visitation policy today to decrease the number of visitors in hospitals.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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