Sitting in her hospital room in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Aimee Matzen struggled to breathe as she described how exhausting it is to have Covid-19.
“The fact that I am here now, I am furious with myself,” she told CNN between deep, deliberate breaths. “Because I was not vaccinated.”
Matzen, 44, finds herself in the Covid-19 intensive care unit at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. She is receiving oxygen treatments and hopes she stays well enough to avoid getting hooked up to a ventilator.
With Covid-19 surging in states across the country, Louisiana stands among those hardest hit by the most recent rise in cases, driven in large part by the Delta variant.
The state has the highest 7-day average of new cases per-capita in the country, at 77 cases reported per 100,000 residents each day over the past week, according to a CNN analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
“It is a kick in the gut to feel like we effectively have lost six or seven months of progress,” Louisiana State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter told CNN’s John King on Wednesday.
Kanter attributed the surge to a “perfect storm” of factors, including the Delta variant, which is believed to be more transmissible, and “unacceptably low vaccination coverage.”
Louisiana’s vaccination rate is among the lowest in the country, with just 37% of residents fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the fifth lowest in the country, and Louisiana is one of six states that has less than 38% of residents fully vaccinated.
The state’s largest healthcare system, Ochsner, has seen a 700% increase in Covid-19 patients over the last month and a 75% increase in the last week, officials said during a news conference on Wednesday.
And the vast majority of those patients – 88%, according to Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas – are unvaccinated.
“This is absolutely disproportionately hitting folks that are unvaccinated,” Thomas said. “Those are the folks that in a very high majority we’re seeing coming to the hospital.”
Matzen told CNN she was not opposed to getting vaccinated – she just hadn’t gotten around to it. Every time she planned to get inoculated, “something would come up,” she said.
“I have this feeling … if I was vaccinated, I wouldn’t be hospitalized,” Matzen said.
Some Covid-19 patients deny the virus is real
Louisiana is one of two states, along with Arkansas, where every county – or parish, as the jurisdictions are known in Louisiana – has “high” levels of community transmission of Covid-19, per CDC data.
That means each parish has either 100 or more cases per 100,000 people, or a test positivity rate of 10% or higher.
Hospitalizations in Louisiana are also skyrocketing, with 1,524 people hospitalized with Covid-19 across the state, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. On July 1 there were 259 hospitalized Covid-19 patients.
The surge is again forcing hospitals to prioritize the treatment of Covid-19 patients over others.
Harkening back to the early days of the pandemic, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center on Monday halted the scheduling of non-urgent surgical procedures that would require an inpatient bed.
The hospital’s problem isn’t a lack of room, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Catherine O’Neal said. Our Lady of Lake is the largest regional medical center in the state, she said. But it doesn’t have the staff to treat everyone.
Patients are coming in waves, O’Neal told CNN, forcing the hospital to call in reserve workers and shut down other wards.
“The load is becoming overwhelming,” she said.
There were 140 Covid-19 patients at Our Lady of the Lake as of Thursday, 30 of whom had been admitted over the previous 24 hours – the most since the pandemic began, according to a hospital spokesperson.
Almost 50% of the patients are under age 50. Fifty patients are in the ICU, and 11 of them are children.
Morgan Babin, a registered nurse who has worked in the hospital’s Covid-19 ICU since March 2020, told CNN the ICU’s population has been rising rapidly with patients who are younger and sicker.
“They were my age, my coworkers’ age – 30s, 40s,” she said. “It made me scared for my own health as well as my community.”
Still, some remain in denial that Covid-19 is real, falling prey to rampant misinformation. And Babin has patients who insist their Covid-positive diagnosis is a lie.
“I have patients that denied they have Covid all the way up until intubation,” she said. “They think that they have a cold, and they think that we’re lying to them.”
Nowhere is safe, doctor says
O’Neal said the hospital assumes all cases now consist of the Delta variant, and the only place people are safe from the virus is in their homes, she said. Even outside, “there is no more safe,” she said.
“If you’re interacting in this community, you should be vaccinated and you should have a mask on, because we’re inundated with Covid,” she said.
Another patient at Our Lady of the Lake, Carsyn Baker, said she believed she got the virus when she visited her friend’s house for her birthday, sitting on a screened porch.
“I’d close my eyes and I’d feel like I couldn’t breathe,” Baker, 21, said. “Something in my body would tell me, like, ‘hey, you need to breathe, like, wake up.’”
Baker has a kidney condition, she said, and her doctor has advised against her getting vaccinated for now.
“It kind of sucks because people like myself with an auto-immune disease, you can’t really go anywhere now, because everybody’s getting sick and it just don’t matter what you do,” Baker said.
Ronnie Smith, another patient, was considering getting a vaccine. But he got Covid-19 instead. Smith, 47, believes he got the virus from a friend at an outdoors cookout.
“Two days after the event, I went down on the floor and I couldn’t get up,” he said.
In a statement this week, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards pleaded for eligible people to get a vaccine, saying all three were “safe and effective” and the best tools available to end the pandemic.
“For anyone asking the question when will this end, the answer is simple: when we decide to do what it takes to end it,” the governor said.
Asked what she would tell people who remain on the fence about the vaccine, Matzen said, “Jump off. Run. Bring your family with you, get to the clinics. There is no excuse anymore. This is real.”
“I just don’t want anyone else winding up like me,” Matzen said, “especially when the vaccine is so easy to get now.”