State’s public health efforts hobbled by low vaccination rates and crowded housing following last year’s hurricane season
Sara Sneath in New Orleans
Fri 13 Aug 2021 02.00 EDT
Like so many people in Louisiana, Tyler Duplantis was hesitant to get a Covid-19 vaccine.
The 26-year-old witnessed the virus tear through his Native American tribe, the United Houma Nation, last year. But when the vaccine became available to him, he was skeptical for several reasons.
There were the stories he’d read on social media, the comments his peers made and then there was the intergenerational trauma provoked by mistreatment of Native American people by the US government. “The healthcare system has betrayed minority populations in the past,” he said.
Duplantis confronted his skepticism by talking to doctors and nurses he knew, who explained that the vaccines available to fight Covid-19 are both safe and effective. “Once I started asking those questions and getting the answers, I felt more comfortable,” he said. He is now among the nearly 38% of Louisiana residents who are fully vaccinated.
But, amid a brutal spike in infections, it is clear Louisiana needs more people like Duplantis, willing to change their mind and get vaccinated as the Delta variant of the virus sweeps through the state and fills ICU units, in scenes reminiscent of the worst days of the pandemic last year.
Louisiana now has the second highest rate of new infections in the nation, after Florida. And its low rate of vaccination means that more of the coronavirus cases are requiring hospitalisation. About 90% of current coronavirus patients in Louisiana hospitals are not fully vaccinated, according to the state’s department of health. As the Delta variant spreads rapidly through unvaccinated communities, Covid-positive patients are overwhelming Louisiana’s healthcare system.
The state has tried to counter misinformation about the vaccine in an attempt to curb new infections. Regional health officials have attended city council meetings and school board meetings to respond to false claims. The Louisiana department of health has also recruited people like Duplantis who may be more trusted in their communities than the department or the government in general, to help debunk misinformation, said an LDH spokesperson, Kevin Litten.
Duplantis worked as the United Houma Nation’s community outreach coordinator last year, as the number of coronavirus cases grew in the state. In this role, he was tasked with delivering food and essential goods to the south Louisiana tribe’s elders in order to lower their risk of contracting the virus. Still, several elders caught the coronavirus and died.
“When we’re talking about losing our elders we’re talking about losing culture bearers,” he said. “The people who died from the virus back then didn’t even have the option of the vaccine. Some of them could have been living to this day.”
While fear of the Delta variant has led to some increase in vaccinations in the state, Louisiana’s healthcare system is straining to keep up with the rate of new infections. Hospitals in south-west Louisiana have diverted ambulances to Texas to find a facility with the capacity to take care of patients. South-west Louisiana, which was devastated by Hurricane Laura last year, has the lowest vaccination rate in the state.
There are fewer intensive care unit beds in the region than there were on 28 August 2020, the day after Hurricane Laura came ashore as a Category 4 storm, said Dr Lacey Cavanaugh, the regional medical director for Region 5. “It’s incredible that we had more capacity the day after Hurricane Laura, with hospitals evacuating – with no power and no water – than what we have right now,” she said.
The influx of sick Covid-19 residents is overwhelming ambulances too, which are responding to significantly more calls, said Dr Chuck Burnell, the chief medical officer for Acadian Ambulance. “Delta is very bad,” he said. “It’s put a strain on every facet of the healthcare system.”
Hospitals can’t take in patients fast enough, which means ambulances are sitting outside emergency rooms with patients inside, Burnell said. Stuck at hospitals, the ambulances are unable to answer other emergency calls. “Heart attacks, strokes and car accidents never went away,” he said. “None of that went away.”
Overwhelmed hospitals have asked ambulances to go somewhere else. “Some hospitals are diverting patients because of their inability to care for them,” Burnell said. “In Lake Charles, we’ve had to go over to Texas.”
Staffing shortages throughout the state are further contributing to the stress on Louisiana’s healthcare system. More than 6,000 nursing positions are open in the state and more than 40 hospitals have requested staffing assistance, said Louisiana’s governor John Bel Edwards. “The most we will be able to deliver will be some assistance to just a handful of those,” he said at a news conference.
Last week, the governor reinstated a statewide mask mandate. “There are no signs on the horizon that things are about to flatten in terms of case growth,” Edwards said. “We’re the worst in the country in terms of this Covid surge and that is because of the Delta variant … and, quite frankly, not enough people have been vaccinated here in Louisiana.”
Ambulances are also operating with diminished staff, as hospitals are hiring paramedics to fill in the gaps, Burnell said. “For all those reasons, it’s very difficult to run 911 calls to meet community needs,” he said.
Healthcare professionals say the spread of coronavirus in Lake Charles has been worsened by the housing shortage caused by Hurricane Laura. Wind speeds in excess of 135mph ripped through the city last August, damaging 47,000 homes in the state, the majority of which were in Lake Charles, according to the Associated Press.
Nearly a year later, residents remain displaced and are staying with friends and family. That means more people are stuck in confined spaces where the virus can more easily spread, said Dr Dharmesh Patel, CEO of Avail hospital in Lake Charles. More family members of patients, including children, are testing positive for the virus than when the pandemic began, he said. More children are requiring hospitalisation from the Delta variant.
In north-west Louisiana, a baby was born with Covid-19 and had to be put on a ventilator and intensive care units for children are filling up, said Dr Martha Whyte, the region’s medical director, at a school board meeting.
“We have pregnant women in their third trimester on the vents,” she said. “We are in a situation that could get significantly worse.”
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