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Virus still game-changer in 2021

Sunday, December 26, 2021
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Leader file photo
LSU Health-Monroe pharmacist Ashley Solley draws a dose of the COVID-19 booster during an event at Ruston Regional Specialty Hospital in October.

Better, yet possibly on the verge of a fifth surge. That’s the state of COVID-19 in Lincoln Parish as 2021 draws to a close.

The parish began the year with 2,711 confirmed COVID cases and 72 confirmed COVID deaths since the pandemic hit in March 2020, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

Now, with only days remaining in 2021, the confirmed case count as of noon Thursday — the final reporting before the Christmas holiday — stood at 4,752 and 103 verified COVID death.

Another 2,544 cases and 16 deaths were linked to COVID.

But despite the close to 75% increase in cases

Vaccines become available over the last 12 months, the rapid daily climb that marked much of year had slowed by the fall after a recordsetting summer of illness caused by the Delta variant.

The variant hospitalized Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker for almost five days in July with a breakthrough case and shut down municipal government in Choudrant in August when five of the village’s six employees tested positive.

Then in December, the Omicron strain arrived. The strain had already been identified in every state and made up 73% of the nation’s active COVID cases when it was discovered in Lincoln Parish on Dec. 22.

The patient, a Ruston resident between age 20-35, was unvaccinated at the time of exposure.

The case confirmation came one day after Gov. John Bel Edwards extended Louisiana’s COVID-19 public health emergency order in light of the spread of the variant nationwide.

Though the reupped order gave state agencies authority to require masks and left in place a loosely held directive that students in grades K-12 wear nose and mouth coverings, most of Louisiana’s COVID mitigation mandates were lifted in October.

That’s when Edwards ended a statewide indoor mask mandate that had been in place since Aug. 2.

But it took a while to get there. When 2021 began, Louisiana’s Lincoln Parishinclusive 5th Congressional District was mourning the COVID-19 death of Congressman-elect Luke Letlow. Letlow, 41, died on Dec. 29, 2020. He was to have been sworn in at his hospital bedside on Jan. 3 by his predecessor, Ralph Abraham.

Letlow’s death made national news. He had announced his diagnosis 11 days earlier on his Facebook page, writing that he was “at home resting, following all CDC guidelines, quarantine protocols, and the recommendations of my doctors.”

But Letlow would soon be admitted to the hospital, first in Monroe and then in Shreveport, where he received the drug Remdesivir and steroids as part of his treatment.

He died from a COVID-fueled heart attack. Letlow had no underlying conditions. In March, his widow, Julia, was elected to the congressional seat.

In early January, limited doses of the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in the parish for the first group of eligible recipients: people over age 70, others with compromising medical conditions and healthcare workers.

The 100 doses were administered in less than 24 hours.

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rose across the state, Gov. John Bel Edwards again urged Louisianans to practice mitigation measures, including wearing masks.

“They’re not that damn onerous,” Edward said Jan. 6. “Put a mask on. You owe it to your family. You owe it to the community. You owe it to those health care workers. Even if you’re not concerned about yourself.”

Only hours before the governor spoke, Louisiana posted its highest number of suspected new cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Of the 6,882 presumed cases, 4,142 were confirmed, making that the second highest singleday case jump, according to the state department of health.

Lincoln Parish stood cumulative 2,767 confirmed cases, a number that reflected an average 20-case-per-day increase that began in late 2020.

As the 2020 holiday season began, Louisiana backed up from a more lenient Phase 3 of COVID reopening to a modified Phase 2.

That meant restaurants, gyms, salons and other businesses were limited to 50% capacity. Sporting events were capped at 25% and a mask mandate was in place.

“Because of the trajectory we are on, it is imperative that we take action and take action now,” Edwards said. “We’re in for a rough patch.”

By March — the one-year mark for the pandemic — the situation had improved, and Louisiana went back to Phase 3, upping to 75% the allowed capacity for most businesses.

Edwards continued to push social distancing, hand washing and getting vaccinated. By month’s end, vaccination eligibility was open to everyone, age 16 and over, regardless of health condition.

Locally, the early clamor for vaccinations was waning.

“It appears that most people who want the vaccine have had it,” Lincoln Parish Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Kip Franklin said.

At the time, approximately 36% of eligible parish residents had opted to be vaccinated.

The seven-day average of new COVID cases dropped to its lowest point in nine months, three cases per day.

Masks off, masks on

On April 28, Edwards lifted the mask mandate. But the better days wouldn’t last.

By July 23, Louisiana had officially entered its fourth surge of COVID. The state was No. 1 in the country for cases per 100,000 people. The Lincoln Parish numbers, which had been climbing by one, two or three cases per day, jumped back up to 10, and sometimes 20, a day.

On Aug. 2, Edwards reinstated the mask mandate. Louisiana was in its worst shape of the pandemic. Lincoln Parish had added 384 cases in August alone.

As August drew to a close, Ruston’s Northern Louisiana Medical Center had 17 COVID patients, four of whom were on ventilators.

“We are seeing a higher number of COVID patients now compared to this time last year,” Tami Davis, NLMC’s marketing director, said.

Since mid-July, NLMC had admitted 70 COVID-positive patients, only 58 of whom were unvaccinated, according to hospital figures.

Even in Lincoln Parish, COVID-19 was becoming an illness largely of the unvaccinated. Health professionals said while breakthrough cases were occurring in vaccinated individuals, their illness were generally not as severe.

Ruston’s Walker said his doctors told him had he been unvaccinated, he likely would have been placed on a mechanical ventilator.

By September, the escalation in both state and local COVID cases slowed, but Louisiana’s baseline was still four times higher than it was going into the fourth surge in July.

Yet by October, the spread to the virus had slackened to the point that Edwards lifted the mask mandate — again.

Then in early December came the Omicron variant. LDH estimates Omicron accounts for 84% of the state’s active COVID cases, including at least one case in Lincoln Parish.

Officials continue to push vaccination and booster shots as the best COVID defense. Approximately 40% of eligible Lincoln Parish residents and almost 50% of eligible Louisianans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — that in the first year that vaccines were available.