After spending the late summer months as the U.S. epicenter of the delta wave of COVID-19, Louisiana has made a turnaround to become the state with the lowest rate of hospitalizations for the virus.
Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health and Human Services Tuesday show that Louisiana has just five people hospitalized per 100,000, compared to the U.S. average of 14 people hospitalized per 100,000. The number of people hospitalized in the state has tumbled 54% over the past month, with just 229 COVID patients now in hospital beds statewide.
During the August peak, when the highly-transmissible delta variant surged across the state, 3,022 beds were occupied with COVID patients.
Cases in Louisiana are also among the lowest in the country, behind only Florida, Georgia and Hawaii, according to a database maintained by The New York Times. There are eight cases per 100,000 people in Louisiana; the U.S. average is 22.
Louisiana hasn't often found itself near the top of the rankings when it comes to improving coronavirus data. The state was among the hardest-hit in March and April of 2020 when the pandemic first arrived in the U.S., and at one point was posting one of the highest death rates in the world.
Public health officials were quick to caution Tuesday that throughout the pandemic there have been periods of low cases and hospitalizations followed by significant jumps. For instance, this time last year, cases were at very low levels before Halloween and began rising in the weeks that followed. Then, gatherings during Thanksgiving, Christmas and other winter holidays led to a surge in cases here and elsewhere.
The winter surge forced the cancellation of parades for this year's Carnival celebrations. Even then, subsequent rises in cases halted another round of festivals and events in the spring — and then again in the early autumn.
“People felt strongly after our third surge last Christmas and New Year's that the end was just around the corner,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the Louisiana state health officer. “Unfortunately, it wasn't the case. One thing about COVID is that it's proven to be unpredictable.”
Since then, Louisiana has vaccinated around 48% of its population, compared to 58% nationally. And officials were quick to note that isn't a high enough rate to confer herd immunity, particularly when the rate of adolescents who have gotten at least one shot hovering around 40% compared to the national rate of 60%.
“It’s nice to not be in the middle of a surge right now,” said Dr. Mark Kline, the physician in chief at Children’s Hospital New Orleans and an infectious disease specialist. “But we remain as vulnerable to another one today as we were in June before the delta surge. Until we get many more people vaccinated — adults, adolescents and children now — we remain vulnerable to that.”
Dr. Jennifer Avegno, head of the New Orleans Health Department said Tuesday that weather has played a role in the state's recent fall in numbers. Mild weather has prompted people to spend time outdoors in well-ventilated environments instead of cloistered in air-conditioning. But in other parts of the county, cold weather has set in, and that's brought more infections.
“Colorado now, their hospitals are overwhelmed,” said Avegno. “Alaska has been on fire for months … Idaho, Montana,” she said, ticking off a string of states in areas of the country farther north. “Why? Because it’s really cold there.”
Weather is certainly one factor of why the coronavirus ebbs and flows, but it’s still not exactly clear why some places experience surges at certain times.
Louisiana has twice now been at the leading edge of surges in the U.S., said Kanter.
"I don't want to be in that position ever again," said Kanter. "While I am cautiously optimistic, the one thing that really keeps me up at night now is knowing that we will remain vulnerable to another surge as long as we allow vaccination rates to remain relatively low."