Louisiana saw the lowest number of people dying from COVID-19 in April and May than any other month since the disease began to spread in the state, but despite the recent lull in severe cases, experts in health concerns that low immunization rates leave the state still vulnerable. another peak in cases.
The state has hit a wall with gunfire, and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has remained fairly stable – albeit historically low – in recent weeks, according to figures from the Department of Health of the state. Meanwhile, more infectious variants of the virus are spreading in parts of the country and also appear to affect the unvaccinated much more severely than the initial version of the virus that gripped the state last year.
The height of any future peak cases that Louisiana will experience depends largely on the number of people vaccinated when cases start to increase, as is usually the case with any virus, said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, physician. chief at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge.
“This strain is more contagious, more deadly and spreads faster among young people,” she said. “I wouldn’t be lulled into a sense of security with last year’s stats because they won’t reflect this year’s push. “
This could cause problems at a time when relaxed restrictions have allowed the state to move closer to a sense of normalcy even as COVID-19 vaccination rates have remained stubbornly slow and below the national average.
In fact, Louisiana has the third-lowest adult vaccination rate in the country at around 44% – a rate that exceeds only Alabama and Mississippi, according to state and federal government figures. This is in contrast to some states that have vaccinated nearly 70% of their adults. In some parishes, less than 20% of residents have received a dose of the vaccine.
“I don’t like being at the bottom of the rankings, but what hurts me the most is that it reflects people who didn’t protect themselves and could get sick from what is now a preventable disease. vaccination, ”said Dr Joseph Kanter, the state health worker.
He added that there were really only two ways to eradicate the infections: revert to mitigation measures or get more people to roll up their sleeves.
“I think most people would prefer the latter,” Kanter said.
A significant drop in the number of deaths and the number of people required to go to hospital in recent months, however, has been an encouraging sign that vaccines are helping mitigate the worst effects of COVID-19. The vaccines available have also been shown to be very effective in preventing people from getting seriously ill, even from known variants.
According to an analysis of state health ministry data, at least 132 people died of complications from COVID-19 in May – the lowest tally of any previous month. For the scale: the agency recorded nearly 1,900 deaths during the deadliest months of the pandemic in March and April 2020, when Louisiana became one of the first epicenters of the viral spread.
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About half of the fatal coronavirus cases in Louisiana around this time were from nursing homes. The effects of the virus have been particularly deadly in these settings as residents live in nearby neighborhoods and are more likely to experience severe and life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms due to their advanced age and underlying health issues.
Cases and deaths in nursing homes have declined significantly since the start of the year, and nearly 80% of residents in long-term care homes are vaccinated, according to state figures. Observers said the high vaccination rate in nursing homes could provide a glimpse of what a fully vaccinated society might look like.
Despite lower participation for other age groups – particularly young adults – nearly 80% of Louisianans aged 70 and over are fully immunized, reflecting the national rate for this age group, according to the state and federal data.
Of the more than 10,000 people who are believed to have died from COVID-19 in Louisiana, more than 7,100, or 67%, were aged 70 and over, a grim statistic drawn primarily by residents of nursing homes. But that gap appears to be narrowing with middle-aged adults being vaccinated at lower rates.
O’Neal said all of the lake’s current COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated and the regional health system continued to see younger patients, children and a “frightening amount” of 40.
“I would like to warn anyone to think that because the elderly are vaccinated, it does not matter because the elderly are the most at risk,” she said, noting how the variants can affect people this year. .
In trying to encourage vaccination of patients, some doctors say they have encountered roadblocks in recent weeks.
Dr Stephen Brierre, who chairs critical lung care at Baton Rouge General Medical Center, said a growing number of his unvaccinated patients were unwilling to even talk about the injections.
“You can feel how polarized they are against this,” he said. “It’s almost like a defensive shield is immediately erected. “
This is in contrast to a few months ago when he saw more suspicious patients speak out about their concerns, ask questions and ultimately decide to get the vaccine.
Many of those patients who refused vaccines also tend to be middle-aged, which is particularly concerning as this demographic tends to be more on the move when going to work, eating out, and attending gatherings. social and other events.
“If we had a variant in the country that had lower vaccine efficacy and you look at a population that is less likely to be socially remote, then you can imagine a scenario where we could face another. push, ”says Brierre.
Heads of state have recently sought to attract the unvaccinated by offering incentives such as free admission to state parks and free drinks at some bars and restaurants. Other states have launched similar carrots in the form of lotteries and cash prizes.
But a probably more effective way to encourage vaccinations is to get people who have received the vaccine to share their experiences with family and friends.
“We are clearly in this new phase. Now it’s about putting people who are hesitant or have concerns at ease, ”Kanter said. “This is something in which the government will not be the main actor. “
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