COVID surge: Steve Scalise, Little Freddie King vaccinated

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A once-reluctant blues musician and a powerful Louisiana congressman are among those who have recently rolled up their sleeves amid climbing COVID-19 infections and an urgent push to increase the number of people vaccinated in the state.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise told The Times-Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate that part of his reason for waiting to get vaccinated until this past Sunday was he thought he had some immunity because he tested positive awhile back for antibodies to the coronavirus.

Musician Little Freddie King was vaccinated Wednesday, shortly after his 81st birthday. He told the newspaper that he'd been reluctant, in part, because he believes a flu shot made him ill.

The two-high profile vaccinations come as coronavirus cases continue to surge across the state, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.

Dr. Catherine O’Neal, the medical director of Our Lady of the Lake regional medical center said Thursday that the most shocking aspect of this coronavirus surge has been its speed. Their caseload has roughly tripled in the course of a week.

“We just saw our admissions skyrocket. And that is what has made this surge different from other surges,” she said. “It’s just the sheer volume of people coming in.”

She said the hospital stopped taking transfers of coronavirus patients from other parts of the state Sunday because they simply didn’t have the capacity to care for them. They have enough space and equipment; the problem is staff. Staff are both exhausted from the pandemic as well as the heavy workload involved in catching up on procedures and care that was delayed for so long. As a result, some have moved on to other jobs. The medical center is also competing with hospitals around the country for the contract nurses who travel from hospital to hospital.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Wednesday issued an advisory this week strongly recommending that people, vaccinated or not, wear masks indoors when not with immediate household member.

The New Orleans Public Schools system said it will require that masks be worn inside all school buildings, regardless of an individual’s vaccination status, starting Friday.

The state reported 2,843 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and 5,388 — the third highest since the pandemic began — on Wednesday. Hospitalizations are up steeply in the past month, from 242 on June 19 to 913 in the latest report. It's the highest number of hospitalizations since early February, when numbers were descending after a winter surge and as vaccines were becoming available. Fifteen new deaths were reported Thursday.

State health department data shows that 36% of Louisiana’s population is fully vaccinated. That's nearly 1.7 million people. Only Mississippi and Alabama have lower vaccination rates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The fourth surge is real, and the numbers are quite frightening at the moment,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said on a New Orleans radio show Thursday. Edwards, a Democrat, added: “There’s no doubt that we are going in the wrong direction, and we’re going there in a hurry."

O'Neal said the vast majority of patients Our Lady of the Lake is seeing are not vaccinated, although they have seen some breakthrough cases of vaccinated people — often those who might have especially vulnerable immune systems such as dialysis patients or the very elderly.

There were some signs that more people were deciding to get vaccinated. The White House on Thursday mentioned Louisiana among hard-hit states where vaccinations are increasing.

Aly Neel, a spokesperson Louisiana's Health Department said the state has seen “a little bump” in vaccinations recently, adding that details would be available Friday. And Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health, said the system had seen a 10% to 15% “uptick” in people seeking vaccination over the past week or two.

“Especially with the delta variant becoming a lot more aggressive and seeing another spike, it was a good time to do it,” said Scalise, a Republican who got his first Pfizer dose Sunday. “When you talk to people who run hospitals, in New Orleans or other states, 90% of people in hospital with delta variant have not been vaccinated. That’s another signal the vaccine works.”

The newspaper reported that King, who turned 81 on Monday, was vaccinated Wednesday at the behest of “Wacko” Wade Wright, his longtime friend, manager and drummer.

“I’ve been hounding him to get the shot,” Wright said.

King said he also had some bad experiences with vaccinations, getting a “knot" on his arm when he was a boy and becoming very ill after a flu shot as an adult. But, Wright said, with his band now playing again in full music venues, King agreed to be vaccinated.