When Ida meets delta: 5 ways the COVID-19 surge complicates Louisiana’s hurricane response

Storm will hit state at a time when health care resources are stretched thin

By: - August 28, 2021 1:32 pm
Another Louisiana COVID-19 record is short-lived; 14,000 new cases reported Thursday

The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital on Aug. 10, 2021 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Hurricane Ida is already expected to be a life-altering, Category 4 storm with winds over 100 miles per hour not only along the Louisiana coast but also more inland parts of the state like Baton Rouge and Lafayette. 

But this hurricane also poses a bigger threat because it is expected to strike at a time when Louisiana is experiencing its worst COVID-19 surge of the pandemic.

When Hurricane Laura slammed into southwest Louisiana last year, the state’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate was less than half of what it is now. The daily COVID-19 case count was just a quarter of what it is today. The COVID-19 health crisis is now more serious and more dangerous. 

“The storm is not the only risk out there. COVID increases the risk,” said Joe Kanter, a doctor and the state’s chief health officer, at a Friday press conference.

The number of people with COVID-19 in hospitals has fallen over the past week, but as of Friday, the hospitalization rate was still higher than it had been during any of the previous three pandemic surges in Louisiana. Hospitals have also been at or over capacity for weeks — exhausting the medical professionals.

And despite having access to vaccines, residents face a version of COVID-19 that is more transmissible now than it was last year. The coronavirus’ delta variant spreads twice as easily as its previous iterations.

“The pandemic isn’t going to leave just because it’s more inconvenient and so we just have to deal with it,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards Friday. 

Here are some challenges the delta COVID-19 surge has brought to hurricane response: 

Hospitals can’t be evacuated because there’s nowhere for patients to go 

Edwards said it would be “impossible” to evacuate hospitals during or after Hurricane Ida because all the other hospitals in the region are already full with COVID-19 patients. They can’t provide assistance to hurricane evacuees.

“We don’t have any place to bring those patients — not in state, not out of state,” Edwards said.

Instead, the governor said the hospitals are going to try to stock up on supplies in the hopes of riding out the storm. The state is making sure they have “way more water than they normally would,” and extra oxygen, which is needed to treat COVID-19 patients.

Still, this is uncharted territory for Louisiana. 

“The implication of having Category 4 force strike while our hospitals are full is beyond what most people contemplate and quite frankly beyond what our normal plans are,” Edwards said.

It’s not unusual for hospital evacuations to take place after a hurricane. They’ve been done when the medical facilities lost access to clean water or  buildings have been damaged.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Laura last year, at least one hospital in Lake Charles had to shut down temporarily and transfer patients to a nearby Lafayette hospital. Hospitals in New Orleans also evacuated patients following Hurricane Katrina.

That’s not an option right now because hospitals in north Louisiana and neighboring states are overwhelmed treating COVID-19 patients. This is in large part due to the reluctance of residents in Louisiana and other Southern states to get vaccinated. Louisiana hospitals have estimated that 90 percent of their COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

The space crunch at hospitals also affects local nursing home patients. During previous hurricanes, some nursing home residents were sent to hospitals because of the severity of their illnesses, but Edwards said that is no longer an option because the hospitals don’t have beds available. 


There’s fewer beds in public hurricane shelters

Louisiana has fewer spaces to house people in the state’s free hurricane shelters located in the central and northern part of the state. Due to COVID-19, shelter beds have to be spaced farther apart — which means there are fewer slots overall, Edwards said.

“Our shelter capacities are not what they would normally be,” the governor said. 

Edwards said the state was trying to contract with hotels to provide evacuees individual rooms in addition to the shelter beds. Putting people in hotels instead of shelters would help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, according to health officials.

Louisiana also made use of hotel space — instead of mass shelters — last year during and after Hurricane Laura, but Edwards said it was easier to find empty rooms then. Few people were traveling and hotels had lots of excess capacity. This year, hotel business has rebounded a bit, so the number of hotel spaces available is not as high. 

“Cobbling together the room space could be a little more difficult,” he said Friday. 

More people will need supplemental oxygen during this hurricane 

More Louisiana residents are using oxygen tanks to help them breathe after being infected with COVID-19. So the state is attempting to distribute more oxygen to people who can use it at home ahead of the storm making landfall.

People need to stock up on their oxygen supply ahead of Hurricane Ida because hospitals don’t have enough capacity to deal with an influx of patients who need oxygen treatment. As many people as possible need to avoid emergency rooms for oxygen treatment during and after the hurricane, Kanter said.

Hurricane displacement could ramp up the spread of COVID-19 

With hundreds of thousands of people potentially relocating during and after the hurricane, Louisiana’s COVID-19 infection rate could go up again. Kanter and Edwards stressed that people still need to wear masks if they find themselves in large crowds.

After living through one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country this month, the state was finally starting to see hospital stays and its infection rate drop. On Friday, the number of COVID-19 patients in a Louisiana hospital was just under 2,700 — 300 less than in the previous week. 

But the state could lose all of the ground it has gained against COVID-19  if precautions aren’t taken during Hurricane Ida. Louisiana’s positive test rate — around 14 percent — is still much higher than it was last summer during Hurricane Laura. That means far more of the virus is circulating in the community, Kanter said.

“None of the gains that we have made [on COVID-19] are irreversible,” Edwards said. 


The hurricane will delay COVID-19 vaccinations

The state shut down most of its public COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites Friday. That means that some people who were expected to get their first and second vaccine shots saw their vaccine appointments canceled.

People who were supposed to receive their second shot shouldn’t panic. The second shot will still provide more protection even if they have to receive it one or two weeks later than it was originally scheduled, Kanter said.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.