BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana, which has beaten back several spikes of the coronavirus disease, is seeing troubling new upticks in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as the state struggles to persuade people to get vaccinated and the highly contagious delta variant increases its spread.
The increases are nowhere near the height of previous outbreaks, when more than 2,000 COVID-19 patients in Louisiana were hospitalized at a time and dozens of people died from the disease each day. But health care officials Thursday worried Louisiana could be headed in that direction as the more virulent delta variant takes hold and becomes the dominant virus strain regionwide.
“COVID is increasing throughout the state, and the risk of being exposed to COVID when one goes about their day-to-day to activities is higher now than it was two weeks ago. There’s also very little doubt this is because of the delta variant,” said Dr. Joseph Kanter, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ chief public health adviser.
In a five-state region that includes Louisiana, 59% of all new COVID-19 cases are the delta variant, Kanter said in a conference call with reporters.
The state is starting to see hundreds of new COVID-19 cases confirmed each day — and has never seen a day without a COVID-19 death reported — since the first outbreak started 16 months ago, according to state health department data. On Thursday, the agency reported 351 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized, a number that has been growing steadily in the last few weeks and that Kanter called “troubling.”
Still, while Kanter said Louisiana may be entering another surge of coronavirus cases, it’s too soon to determine if he’d recommend a return to the mask mandate, business restrictions and other mitigation measures that the Democratic governor ditched in May. Of a return to those kind of rules, Kanter said: “Nobody wants to do that.”
Kanter and Dr. Gina LaGarde, the state’s regional medical director for St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Livingston, St. Helena and Washington parishes, said available vaccines continue to be a good match to ward off serious illness and hospitalization from the delta variant, if only people would get them.
“The single most important thing to ending this pandemic is to be vaccinated,” LaGarde said.
Louisiana lags nearly every other state in vaccine distribution. Its vaccination rate per capita exceeds only that of Mississippi and Alabama, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Slightly more than 1.8 million people, 39% of Louisiana’s total population, have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state health department data. More than 1.6 million people have been fully immunized, nearly 36% of the population.
The state has launched a widespread grassroots outreach effort that brings the shots directly to neighborhoods, churches and homes, and it’s offering residents who have gotten vaccinated a chance to win a share in $2.3 million in cash prizes and college scholarships. The first drawings for $100,000 in cash and a $100,000 college scholarship for those ages 12 to 17 will be held July 14.
But immunizations against COVID-19 continue to increase at a glacial pace across Louisiana, with polls showing a wide array of residents nervous about the shots’ side effects or outright hostile to the idea of the vaccines. Interest in the vaccines is so low the state has drawn down very little of its federal allotment of the shots available for months now.
Kanter said Louisiana has “seen a little bit of a bump” in vaccination rates because of the lottery, but he’d like to see much more.
“There really never has been more urgency than now because of what delta is doing across the state,” he said.