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Health care workers battle Louisiana’s COVID-19 surge, low vaccination rates

Right now, Louisiana has the nation’s highest per-capita infections, driven in large part by the extremely contagious delta variant. At the same time, Louisiana also has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, and this week Gov. John Bel Edwards reimposed a statewide mask mandate for all indoor settings. William Brangham reports from one Baton Rouge hospital.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's take an in-depth look now at the human effects of the latest surge in COVID.

    Louisiana has the nation's highest per capita infections, driven in large part by the extremely contagious Delta variant. At the same time, Louisiana also has one of the country's lowest vaccination rates.

    This week, Governor John Bel Edwards reimposed a statewide mask mandate for all indoor settings.

    William Brangham and our team were given special access to one hospital, Baton Rouge General, as staff there try to save lives and to convince more people to get vaccinated.

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    So, we have got 59-ish, fixing to be 60 ICU patients. Of those, 47 are COVID-positive.

  • William Brangham:

    Each morning at Baton Rouge General Hospital begins like this.

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    Yesterday was incredibly busy. We went from 39 to 47 COVID ICU patients.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Stephen Brierre, the chief of critical care, briefs the hospital's division chiefs on the latest COVID numbers.

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    1-R saying that — and this is ugly. I hate to talk about it. We need to expand the morgue.

    You seem to be having some trouble with that.

  • William Brangham:

    Right after, Dr. Brierre is back upstairs in the ICU. Just over a month ago, there were 10 COVID patients in the hospital. The day we visited, there were 129. It's a surge that's caught Dr. Brierre somewhat by surprise.

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    I thought we were close to done. I knew Delta was going to be a little bit of a surge, especially in Louisiana, given our low vaccination rates. But I had no idea that the impact would be almost as severe as the first surge that we saw.

  • William Brangham:

    More than 60 percent of people in Louisiana are not fully vaccinated, and that's overwhelmingly who's ending up in this hospital with COVID. Of those 129 hospitalized COVID patients, nearly 90 percent are unvaccinated.

    And doctors here believe, in part because of the Delta variant, patients may be getting sicker faster.

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    We're certainly seeing a group of people, not all of them, but a group of them in the ICU who rapidly deteriorate. So, people that we would have thought we would have been able to support without a ventilator for a week or two to get them through it, we're running to the bedside to intubate them 24, 48 hours into the hospital…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    That fast?

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    Yes, sir.

  • William Brangham:

    Seeing this large number of unvaccinated people coming through your doors, is that frustrating to you? And is it just — you just think, that's just the way our society is? Like, how do you square that?

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    I try not to dwell on it too much.

  • William Brangham:

    Why not?

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    Because it does frustrate. There is a little bit of we shot ourselves in our foot.

    I'm not mad at people who didn't vaccinate. And I understand a lot of it. I mean, there was so much misinformation out there. And the country is so polarized,

  • Robert Wilson:

    Until it affects you personally, you don't know. Now I know.

  • William Brangham:

    In one of those in-demand hospital beds is Robert Wilson, a 49-year-old who contracted the virus last month. He wasn't vaccinated.

  • Robert Wilson:

    It wasn't political. It just — I didn't figure I was going to need it, because nobody really knows the long term of this vaccine, and people are scared of it.

  • William Brangham:

    So, that was your concern? That you might take the shot, and it might harm you long-term?

  • Robert Wilson:

    Down the road, we don't know. And that's most people's experience that I know. But if it combats this, I'm going to get it, this go-round.

  • William Brangham:

    Because of his brush with the virus, Wilson says his family is planning to get vaccinated too.

    Thirty-two-year-old Jordan Miller is an ICU nurse. She's been here through the whole pandemic. And she says, for her, this is the worst yet. Staff are tired, burned out. They're working overtime. And she says too many people don't take the virus seriously.

  • Jordan Miller:

    It's something that could have been prevented. And that's what's so hard.

    And because these people are younger and healthier, it hits even harder. You know, I had a 34-year-old patient that I was talking to, communicating with, having a discussion about his family, and then, within four hours, he coded and died, 34 years old, no medical history.

  • William Brangham:

    Unvaccinated?

    While the unvaccinated are the lion's share of hospitalizations and deaths here and nationwide, that's not true for all.

  • Rita Eames:

    I had my vaccine in January and February, and I just started feeling bad a couple of weeks ago.

  • William Brangham:

    Seventy-year-old Rita Eames says she did everything she was asked to do to avoid COVID, including getting her and her family vaccinated. Nevertheless, she developed a rare breakthrough case a couple of weeks ago.

  • Rita Eames:

    I think my odds are much better than me not having any vaccine. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again.

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    So what could we have done as a population to decrease her risk of being in an ICU for her fifth day now? And what we could have done is, the rest of us could have been vaccinated, because we know, if we're vaccinated, we decrease the probability of catching it ourselves and transmitting it to someone like Ms. Eames.

  • William Brangham:

    Louisiana's low vaccination rate applies to medical staff as well. At Baton Rouge General, about half the hospital staff haven't taken the vaccine.

    One of them is surgical tech Ashley Lanoux. She spent much of last year recovering from breast cancer and undergoing chemotherapy.

  • Ashley Lanoux:

    I was very unsure about it just because it was thrown out so quick.

  • William Brangham:

    You mean they developed the vaccine so quickly.

  • Ashley Lanoux:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    And that made you nervous.

  • Ashley Lanoux:

    Mm-hmm. Yes. I mean, it was — it felt very rushed. Like, why — why did you all of a sudden come up with a vaccine so quickly for something that just came around?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, they would say it's because over 600,000 Americans died, and we have got to stop those deaths. That doesn't persuade you?

  • Ashley Lanoux:

    No.

  • William Brangham:

    Then, two weeks ago, Lanoux got COVID, and ended up at urgent care, needing an infusion of monoclonal antibodies. That experience pushed her closer to getting the vaccine, but not fully.

  • Ashley Lanoux:

    I'm on the yes side, but I'm not 100 percent yet. I mean, there's a lot of people even around here that have questions about it and the uncertainty just with the employees.

  • William Brangham:

    This week, another major hospital in Baton Rouge, Our Lady of the Lake, said it would now require its employees to get vaccinated.

    Baton Rouge General says it's not quite ready for that step.

  • Dr. Dawn Marcelle:

    I do think that mandating vaccines would be helpful when it comes to increasing the vaccination rate.

  • William Brangham:

    Pediatrician Dr. Dawn Marcelle is the public health director for the region that includes Baton Rouge. She works with hospitals, clinics, the National Guard and many others to increase COVID testing and vaccination.

    She says, in addition to more mandates, this surge in cases and deaths is already motivating some to change their minds about getting the shooting. The state saw a fourfold increase in first doses received in the six weeks from mid-June to late July.

  • Dr. Dawn Marcelle:

    We have seen increased traffic at our parish health units across the state. People are calling now like they were at the very beginning of vaccine availability. So, we are seeing a definite uptick in interest in vaccines and people getting vaccinated.

  • William Brangham:

    Back on the ICU floor, staff have already built two additional units and are planning on a third.

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    You're already down to 80 percent oxygen, and I'm going to decrease it some more.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Brierre, nurse Miller and the other staff are stressed out and stretched thin, just hoping more people will hear their pleas to get vaccinated.

    Do you think, if I come back here six months from now, we're going to still be having this debate?

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    I didn't think we'd be here today six months ago, when we knew that a vaccine was fixing to be available to us. So I don't know.

  • William Brangham:

    The COVID surge here isn't expected to peak until mid-September.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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