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A Louisiana Hospital CEO Recounts How The COVID-19 Surge Is Affecting Her State

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One state's been especially hard hit as COVID-19 case rates rise again across the country because of the delta variant. Louisiana now has among the highest average daily case rates in the nation. COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state have surged to a new peak. Local hospitals say they could soon be overwhelmed with infected patients.

And we turn now to a hospital that is at the center of the crisis. North Oaks Medical Center is the largest hospital in Tangipahoa Parish. Michele Kidd Sutton is the president and CEO of the North Oaks Health System in Hammond, La. Thanks very much for being with us.

MICHELE KIDD SUTTON: My pleasure.

SIMON: Please give us a sense of what it's like to walk through the hospital, the hallways and the waiting room. What do you see? What do you hear?

SUTTON: The mood is extremely somber. We are overrun with patients. We have opened our third ICU. It's a surge ICU, so we've had to shut down elective surgeries. And that is now full as well. This week, we hit a high of 109 patients. And when you look at the size of our facility, that's right - a little bit over 50% of all of our beds have a COVID patient in them. And our ER volume is up by 10%. And so it's not uncommon right now for us to see EMS stretchers lining up our hallways, waiting to offload. We're asking EMS to divert ambulances to other facilities. Unfortunately, most of the facilities in our area are also overrun with COVID patients. Their ERs are backed up. So there's really no place for EMS to go but to our facility.

SIMON: Do you have enough staff?

SUTTON: No. We don't have enough staff, so we've had to do what we're calling contingency plan. Nationwide, there's a health care worker shortage. I have 60 nurse openings today. I have 39 contracts. But there's no more staff to be gotten.

SIMON: Yeah.

SUTTON: So we're asking all of our clinical staff to give us at least one shift of overtime every two weeks. We have asked all of our advanced practitioners working in our clinics to leave the clinic setting and come into the hospital. And then we are repurposing our OR team since we can't do elective surgeries to staff our critical care units and to staff our beds. And so we have filled out a request for help from the government to get additional staffing, and we're hopeful that we will get some help - how much, I'm not sure.

SIMON: People must be exhausted.

SUTTON: They are. Our staff is very tired, but they're also resilient, and they are passionate about making a difference in people's lives and improving it. So I see them rally every day. We have had counselors on site to help them because they're not accustomed to seeing the amount of deaths that they're seeing, and especially in a younger population. This new delta variant is claiming people's lives of a much younger age. We have seen deaths as young as 24. And it's - most of it has been breaking our staff's hearts because it may have been avoidable because the majority of these people - 90% of the patients in our facility - have not been vaccinated.

SIMON: According to The New York Times and other sources, only 37% of the residents of Louisiana have been fully vaccinated, which is below the 50% of the country. Yet we hear from people every day who distrust the vaccine.

SUTTON: I would welcome those individuals to come walk our halls with us and talk to our staff, talk to the caregivers, talk to the people in the field because I don't think anybody would be as distrustful of the vaccine if they experience what we were seeing firsthand.

SIMON: What do you feel like right now?

SUTTON: Right now, I have to say, my heart breaks for my staff. I'm asking people to rally once again. And we don't see an end in sight. All forecasts show that we're still not to the peak of our delta variant. It's somewhere between mid-to-late September before it'll peak. And it is - I mean, I'm not going to lie. It's probably the hardest time in my career, and I've been doing this for 35 years.

SIMON: Michele Kidd Sutton is president and CEO of North Oaks Health System in Hammond, La. Thanks so much, and good luck.

SUTTON: My pleasure. Thank you. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.