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Louisiana Hospitals, Already Full With COVID Patients, Are Slammed In Wake Of Ida

Ochsner Baptist Medical Center. March 25, 2020.
Patrick Madden
Ochsner Baptist Medical Center. March 25, 2020.

Inside a boarded-up 7th Ward shotgun apartment days after the devastating Hurricane Ida hit southeast Louisiana, Karl Mutin was trying to care for his 80-year-old father amid a sweltering heat forecast, no air conditioning and few ways to cool him down.

“It’s been rough. I’ve been wiping my father down with a wet rag to keep him cool because he’s bedridden, he can’t get up, he’s blind,” Mutin said. “He can’t see or nothing, he has dementia, so he can’t do nothing for himself.”

His family stayed to ride out the storm, and they’ll be staying through its aftermath, in a city now marked by scarcity of the basic necessities — food, water, gasoline, and critically, electricity.

Across a coastline battered and torn by Hurricane Ida, a new threat is emerging: the risks that come with trying to survive the recovery. Most of the region was under a heat advisory Wednesday with little indication temperatures would dip meaningfully in the coming days.

Those able to cool down with the aid of a generator face the silent threat of carbon monoxide poisoning.

One person has died and 12 are hospitalized from carbon monoxide poisoning, Lt. Jonathan Fourcade, the public information officer for New Orleans EMS, told WWNO.

On Aug. 31, a man who was found indoors with a portable generator under the same roof died.

On Wednesday, 12 people from a single resident with a portable generator under the living area were transported to a hospital, seven of them being children. Six of the 12 were in critical condition, Fourcade said.

In Jefferson Parish, councilman Scott Walker said EMS services were getting four or five calls for carbon monoxide poisoning an hour on Wednesday.

“Our hospitals and our ERs were packed before this, so adding more people at this point doesn’t make it any better,” Walker said.

State officials have been warning people to use generators safely, after carbon monoxide poisoning accounted for the majority of deaths in the wake of Hurricane Laura last year.

“It’s a situation that could get progressively worse if things don’t control themselves pretty soon,” he added. “If we have more people coming back and more people getting in trouble and more people needing medical attention, then it could certainly develop into a problem.”

Most emergency rooms in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes remained open throughout the storm — even at facilities that evacuated in-patients after the storm tore roofs and thrust in water damage.

Now, they are swamped with patients.

“It is incredibly busy in our emergency rooms right now,” said Dr. Robert Hart, the chief medical officer for Ochsner Health, which runs hospitals across the impacted region.

Capacity was tight before the storm as Louisiana’s hospitals struggled to treat record highs of COVID-19 patients. Ida caused at least six area hospitals to evacuate in-patient beds, dropping capacity even further. Now, there’s not always somewhere to transport a patient, and some have to remain in the ER, Hart said.

There are COVID patients and the usual post-storm injuries from people cleaning up. Then the emergencies that typically fill an ER, such as strokes and heart attacks.

Emergency rooms are seeing people getting hurt from falling from roofs and even using chainsaws. And the lack of electricity has another risk: driving.

“We see a lot of car wrecks because street lights are out, and that's a four-way stop, but people are barreling through intersections without caution,” Laperouse said. “So last night, we had a significant number of motor vehicle accidents in the emergency department. You know, most of them minor, but some of them not.”

The region is no longer under a dangerous heat advisory, as it was during day two and three of Hurricane Ida recovery, but it’s still hot. Most people in the region are still without power, therefore they’re without air conditioning at night.

Mark Laperouse, an ER doctor at Our Lady of the Lake and the medical director for emergency services for the Baton Rouge region, said it can be difficult for people’s bodies to recover from heat like this.

“They just wear themselves out to a point where they can have, you know, injury to their kidneys into some of their other organs. They can cause themselves to have heart attacks, hernias,” he said.

Charles Harris, an 80-year-old who lives in the Seventh Ward, walked to a cooling site set up at the Treme Recreation Community Center by the city on Wednesday.

“The heat is unbearable to tell you the truth, but you do what you got to do,” he said.

His granddaughter had urged him to go so he could charge his phone. Outside the center, the city had parked three of the cooling buses deployed across the city to try and help people cool down.

For Harris, who hasn’t yet decided if he’ll try to leave the city post-Ida, it wasn’t enough.

“I mean you go there and cool off, you know, but after you cool off and come back off the bus you gonna start sweating again,” he said.

For health officials, the impact of Ida on the region’s surging fourth wave of the pandemic remains unclear. Testing and vaccination sites were closed for days across the region.

As of Wednesday there were 12,380 new cases of COVID-19, 2,447 patients were in Louisiana hospitals with COVID-related illnesses and 446 of them were on ventilators, according to the state health department. Weekly reporting on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths has been impacted by Hurricane Ida.

Ochsner is beginning to reopen monoclonal antibody infusion sites in Baton Rouge and on the Northshore beginning Thursday.

“The big concern right now with everyone leaving, traveling, sheltering in small places, gathering groups together, now people may be returning to the city and region — will there be another spike in our COVID-19 patients or infections?” said Hart.

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.
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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