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Coronavirus Pushes Some Hospitals In Southern Louisiana To The Brink

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This pandemic has pushed hospitals to the edge of their capacity in southern Louisiana. An NPR analysis shows that region has one of the worst ratios of available hospital beds to the number of people needing treatment. Here's Rosemary Westwood from member station WWNO.

ROSEMARY WESTWOOD, BYLINE: Larry P. Sean (ph) called an ambulance to take his wife, Judy (ph), to a hospital in Lake Charles on the morning of July 13. With a rare autoimmune disease, trips to the emergency room weren't unusual. But this time, amid a surge of coronavirus cases, the hospital wouldn't let Larry go with her. Judy called later to say she was feeling better. But then, the next morning...

LARRY P SEAN: Well, she had already died. You know, when I got there, she had already - had just died.

WESTWOOD: Larry says because the hospital's ICU beds were full of COVID-19 patients, Judy received less attention. If it weren't for the pandemic, he thinks his wife might be alive. At the very least, he could have been at her side.

SEAN: It happened because somebody else did not take the precautions that they should've taken, got the virus and then had that bed that my wife needed.

WESTWOOD: The hospital would not comment on whether Judy's death was related to crowding. But it's one of several in Lake Charles facing a severe shortage in beds. About an hour's drive east at Lafayette General Health, Dr. Amanda Logue says her hospital is refusing any transfers from the surrounding rural areas or even nearby facilities.

AMANDA LOGUE: We've had to turn them all away. So even if you're in a car accident, I'm sorry, but we can't take you.

WESTWOOD: In both Lake Charles and Lafayette, there are no more than a few dozen ICU beds left. And the major hospitals are at or near full capacity. Most have created entirely new ICU units for COVID-19 patients by taking over other parts of the hospital. But it's still not enough. Dr. Alex Billioux is assistant secretary for the state's Office of Public Health.

ALEX BILLIOUX: The key thing about those areas is that there's just not a lot of hospital beds.

WESTWOOD: There are numerous plans for more surge capacity but a limiting factor is staff. ICU nurses and other hospital staff are getting sick with the virus, putting them out of rotation for weeks and forcing their colleagues into overtime. Contract nurses are in short supply. Governor John Bel Edwards has requested hundreds of additional medical personnel through the Federal Emergency Management Agency - or FEMA. Hospitals are also stretched thin trying to deal with a backlog in postponed surgeries. The crisis won't end until more people start taking the coronavirus seriously, says Dr. Henry Kaufman with Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette.

HENRY KAUFMAN: There was a meme going around recently that says, when your personal beliefs don't match with reality, then all you can call them is your personal delusions.

WESTWOOD: Kaufman blames a politically motivated agenda that ignores science.

KAUFMAN: And that's something, unfortunately, I think, we're seeing on a daily basis. And I think that's having an impact on what's happening in our community.

WESTWOOD: Larry P. Sean, who lost his wife of 34 years, recently ran into someone who told him the coronavirus was being exaggerated.

SEAN: I had to tell him. I said, no. I said, my wife just died last week because she could not get the proper care because of all the people with COVID. It is not exaggerated. It really exists.

WESTWOOD: For NPR News, I'm Rosemary Westwood in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "TO SPEAK OF SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.