NEW ORLEANS — Epidemiologists and hospital executives with Ochsner Health System painted a grim picture of the fight against COVID during a Zoom call with reporters Thursday, as the fourth wave of the coronavirus continues to rampage through Louisiana.
For the past three days, each new update to the state's coronavirus dashboard has broken hospitalization records, with 2,350 COVID patients hospitalized as of Thursday. CEO Warner Thomas said Thursday that almost 900 of those patients were in Ochsner beds.
And that number is predicted to grow, he said.
"This is gonna keep escalating. We think it will escalate in the next several weeks," Thomas told reporters. "It is absolutely reaching a critical situation. We are looking at other ways to open bed capacity beyond our normal beds."
Even among Ochsner staff, cases are rising. As of Thursday, 520 staff members were quarantined after testing positive for the virus.
Warner attributed this largely to the low rate of vaccination in Louisiana, which has one of the lowest in the country.
"This has evolved to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated," he said.
Around 41.5% of the state has started the vaccination process, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health. Only 67% of Ochsner staff have received their vaccines, and hospital officials said during the call that even those who are unvaccinated have been drafted to staff the growing COVID units.
Those growing units are causing problems for more than just the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who are caring for them.
"This makes the wait time longer," said Robert Hart, Ochsner's Chief Medical Officer. "This does affect other people needing care and leading to the inability to take transfers in as our bed capacity becomes stretched."
Even with the current spike continuing an upward trend, epidemiologists are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"What we're worried about, from an infectious disease perspective, is that the next mutation of delta, or the next mutation of something else that's not affected by our vaccines," said Sandy Kemmerly, the hospital system's Assistant Medical Director of Hospital Quality.
That strain could be an offshoot of the delta variant, such as a further mutation of the delta+ strain, or some entirely new branch of the virus spreading among the unvaccinated population.
The delta variant itself proves how quickly a more infectious or deadlier strain of the virus can cause major problems.
Hospital administrators estimate that the original strain of COVID, designated as alpha, is all but extinct in Louisiana.
"95% plus of cases are delta in our region and we don't know yet if there will be more variants," said Katherine Baumgarten, who heads Ochsner's infection control and prevention efforts.
The only solution that will prevent a new strain of COVID from developing? Vaccines.
"If someone thinks they had immunity, it's to a strain of the virus that's not around anymore," Thomas said. "They don't have immunity to the delta variant, which is why they need to be vaccinated."