NEW YORK – The scene at Louisiana’s largest hospital in recent weeks is déjà vu to spring 2020: A COVID-19 patient surge, in-person visitations to those patients restricted, elective surgeries paused, inadequate staffing numbers, and not enough beds available to those in need.
Father Donatus Ajoko, who has been a chaplain at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge since the pandemic began, said the experience of the whole pandemic “is like somebody is sick and then they’re getting better and then they eventually get worse.”
The hospital has 163 COVID-19 positive patients as of Tuesday – the most it has seen in any day through the pandemic. It’s more than a quarter of the approximate 700 patients currently admitted.
The hospital on Monday brought in a 33-member disaster medical assistance team to help with the influx of COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Catherine O’Neal, the chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake, said in a briefing on Monday that not one diagnosis should take up a quarter of the hospital, and that it can’t be tolerated because of the “incredible pressure it puts on the rest of our patients and hospital staff.”
She then further explained that this is the worst it’s been since the pandemic began, calling these “the darkest days of the pandemic.”
Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center is a part of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System that includes other hospitals in Louisiana and Mississippi.
In a conversation with Crux, Coletta Barrett noted the fact that of all of the COVID-19 patients they’ve seen of late, 90 percent are unvaccinated. As the vice president of mission at the hospital, she said it’s sometimes difficult discussing the vaccine with unvaccinated patients, who despite their hospitalizations will not consider getting the jab.
“One of the biggest things that we struggle with and ask for assistance with is how do we with respect, with dignity, still engage and provide care for someone who really is very adamant that they’re not going to get the vaccine, that they don’t believe the decision will protect them or anybody else?” Barrett said.
“It gets difficult, but our Catholic identity and our ministry calls us to care for all of God’s children,” she continued. “We have to find that resilience within ourselves to not discriminate, to not judge those who choose not to, and you know, it is still a choice [to get the vaccine].”
Ajoko, who is the director of pastoral care at Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center, told Crux that he has gotten different responses from patients when it comes to getting the COVID-19 vaccine once they leave the hospital.
There are those, he said, that insist they will not get vaccinated – one concern being that it’s still under emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration and isn’t approved.
Other patients have a change of heart.
“Some of our chaplains have discussed with people the reasons why they didn’t take the vaccine and express remorse, or regret, saying that if they knew then what they knew now that they would’ve taken the vaccine,” Ajoko said. “Seeing the impact that it has on them and their families, it made a lot of them change their minds and they decided to take it.”
The overall figures in Louisiana mirror what’s happening at Our Lady of the Lake: 90 percent of cases, 85 percent of deaths, and 89 percent of hospitalizations in the state are unvaccinated people, according to the latest Louisiana Department of Health data from mid-late July. Louisiana has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
The latest data from the Louisiana Department of Health on Tuesday showed 4,725 new cases, 59 new deaths and 2,112 new COVID-19 patients. The ongoing surge in the state prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards on Monday to reinstate a mask mandate indoors for everyone age five and older in an effort to curb the spread.
At this point, the hospital officials don’t know what the rest of the summer will look like. Ajoko called it the “road to the unknown.”
What strikes Barrett about this latest surge is the Delta variant, is spreading much faster among adults. Our Lady of the Lake children’s hospital is also now seeing 8-12 children on a daily basis infected with COVID-19 compared to a maximum of two through the first three surges.
O’Neal has spoken multiple times now about the Delta variant poses. Like Barrett she mentioned the impact it’s having on children, and she also brought up the impact it’s having on pregnant mothers. Her message, though, always stays the same. That the only way out of the pandemic is for people to get vaccinated.
“We only have two choices. We are either going to get vaccinated and end the pandemic, or we are going to accept death,” O’Neal said. “A lot of it.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg