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During A 4th COVID Surge, Louisiana Hospitals Report They've Never Been Busier

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In addition to Florida, Louisiana is among the states hardest hit by the latest COVID surge. Louisiana now has the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the country. And yesterday, Governor John Bel Edwards ordered an indoor mandate for everyone, regardless of vaccination status.

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JOHN BEL EDWARDS: It has become extremely clear that our current recommendations on their own are not strong enough to deal with Louisiana's fourth surge of COVID. In fact, nobody should be laboring under the misapprehension that this is just another surge. We've already had three of these. This is the worst one we've had thus far.

MARTINEZ: Dr. Joseph Kanter is an ER doctor and the top medical official of Louisiana's Department of Health. He joins us on the line from New Orleans. Doctor, good morning.

JOSEPH KANTER: Thank you, A. Good morning. It's nice to be with you.

MARTINEZ: Now, what's the current situation in hospitals across Louisiana right now?

KANTER: They've never been busier. We're on track today, short of a divine intervention, to exceed the peak of at any point prior in the pandemic of the number of hospitalized COVID patients. We heard from large hospital systems yesterday of the drastic measures they're having to do - cancel procedures, decline transfers in from smaller hospitals of patients that need a higher level of care. And we heard stories of patients sitting in ERs four or five days while the teams try and find a bed to no avail. And that's just a situation that we cannot tolerate.

MARTINEZ: How's your staffing right now? You get enough nurses?

KANTER: You know, it's pretty much the same as it is in other states, Florida included. We have enough physical space. We have enough ventilators and PPE. We have a nursing shortage, same as a lot of hospitals across the country. And look; a lot of nurses have taken time off or pursued nonclinical jobs or gone back to school. And I understand that. It's been a very challenging year. But hospitals are having a tough time to retain and recruit new nurses. We had to call in a federal disaster assistance medical team. We have more on the way to provide staffing augmentation. That's a drastic move that you typically don't see outside of severe natural disasters like a big earthquake or a hurricane.

MARTINEZ: Now, when we talked with you last December as the FDA was about to issue emergency authorization for one of the COVID vaccines, you said that you felt that the end was in sight. Yet now Louisiana has the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the country. Doctor, what happened?

KANTER: I'll tell you, it's shocking and disheartening to be here. But what happened is delta, and delta is different. Delta changed the game. This is just the most aggressive form of COVID that we have seen yet. It's infecting children at a higher rate, and it swept across this state faster than anything we've seen. We went, in about a month time, from the lowest number of cases and the lowest hospitalization at any point prior, since we started counting over a year ago, to the highest in just four weeks. And what's even scarier is there was no sign that it's slowing. We continue to go up at a very fast pace. That's what prompted the governor's action yesterday. But we really have never seen anything like delta yet.

MARTINEZ: You have any idea back then that vaccine hesitancy or resistance would be the biggest challenge in overcoming this pandemic?

KANTER: I did not. I did not. And, you know, I'm thinking back to December and January. The biggest challenge we had at that point in time was these difficult decisions of, how do you triage vaccine? We had such a limited supply and such a large demand. Do you give it to people who have underlying health conditions like cancer, or do you give it to school teachers? - these terrible decisions. But there was so much demand at that point. It really is shocking how quickly that has turned. And for a vaccine that is more efficacious than most vaccines out there and has been now studied - I mean, it's been four hundred and - 346 million doses administered across the state with the most robust monitoring system we've ever had in this country. There's never been a vaccine that's been better studied than this. It does shock me the degree of hesitancy that remains across the population.

MARTINEZ: And only 37% of Louisiana residents are fully vaccinated. What do you think's been driving those numbers?

KANTER: Well, up until now, I think there was a lack of urgency. I think, you know - we have always felt that there were a lot of people who likely will get vaccinated at some point. They just hadn't done so yet. I'll tell you what has been encouraging, if there's any silver lining to this situation we find ourselves in now, is the pace of vaccines has picked up dramatically. We've increased fourfold over the past two weeks. And if you talk to people who have now chosen to get vaccinated where they hadn't before, they're scared. This is a small state, and most people know someone who's sick right now. And people are scared. What's heartbreaking, though, is you have to ask those people that got vaccinated - we had 11,000 people get - you know, choose to begin the vaccine series yesterday. And, you know, I guarantee each one of them would have rather done it five weeks ago.

MARTINEZ: Is that accelerated pace, though, you think enough to slow the surge down any time soon?

KANTER: I don't think it's going to slow it immediately. I think - hopefully, it will help shorten the duration of this surge. But, you know, what we need to do is bend this curve and peak very, very soon because if we don't - if we don't peak within this week or shortly thereafter, we are clearly going to exceed the capacity of hospitals. That's going to be a catastrophic situation. I do think increasing the vaccination base will probably shorten the duration of this surge. It certainly will better protect us after this for the next surge. But we really do need mitigation measures immediately. And that's why this masking order is unfortunately necessary and so important right now.

MARTINEZ: That's Dr. Joseph Kanter of Louisiana's Department of Health.

Doctor, thank you very much for speaking with us.

KANTER: My pleasure. Have a good day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.