(CNN) — Sitting in her hospital room in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Aimee Matzen struggled for breath as she described how exhausting it is to have COVID-19.
“The fact that I’m here now, I’m furious with myself,” she told CNN between deep, deliberate breaths. “Because she was not vaccinated.”
Matzen, 44, is 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 to stay well enough to avoid being hooked up to a ventilator.
With the rise of covid-19 in states across the country, Louisiana is among the hardest hit by the most recent surge 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, with 77 cases reported per 100,000 residents each day for the past week, according to a CNN analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
“It’s a kick in the stomach to feel like we’ve actually lost six or seven months of progress,” Louisiana state health official Dr. Joseph Kanter told CNN’s John King on Wednesday.
Kanter attributed the increase 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). . It is 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 in the past month and a 75% increase in the past week, officials said during a press conference on Wednesday.
And the vast majority of those patients – 88%, according to Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas – are not vaccinated.
“This absolutely disproportionately affects people who are not vaccinated,” Thomas said. “Those are the people that the vast majority of us are seeing coming to the hospital.”
Matzen told CNN that he was not opposed to getting vaccinated, he just hadn’t. Every time he planned to get vaccinated, “something came up,” he 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 each county, or parish, as Louisiana jurisdictions are known, has “high” levels of community transmission of covid-19, according to data from the CDC.
That means each parish has 100 or more cases per 100,000 people, or a test positivity rate of 10% or more.
Hospitalizations in Louisiana are skyrocketing as well, with 1,524 people hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. On July 1, there were 259 covid-19 patients hospitalized.
The increase is again forcing hospitals to prioritize the treatment of COVID-19 patients over others.
Going back to the early days of the pandemic, Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center on Monday halted scheduling non-urgent surgical procedures that would require an inpatient bed.
The hospital’s problem isn’t lack of space, said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, the medical director. Our Lady of Lake is the largest regional medical center in the state, he said. But he doesn’t have the staff to treat everyone.
Patients are coming in waves, O’Neal told CNN, forcing the hospital to call reserve workers and close other wards.
“The burden is becoming overwhelming,” he said.
There were 140 covid-19 patients at Our Lady of the Lake as of Thursday, 30 of whom had been admitted within the previous 24 hours, the most since the pandemic began, according to a hospital spokesperson.
Almost 50% of patients are under 50 years of age. 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 that the ICU population has increased rapidly with younger and sicker patients.
“They were my age, the age of my coworkers: 30, 40,” he said. “I was scared for my own health and that of my community.”
Yet some continue to deny that Covid-19 is real, preyed upon by rampant misinformation. And Babin has patients who insist their covid-positive diagnosis is a lie.
“I have patients who denied having covid until intubation,” he said. “They think they have a cold and they think we are lying to them.”
No place is safe, says doctor
O’Neal said the hospital assumes that all cases now consist of the delta variant, and that the only place where people are safe from the virus is in their homes, he said. Even outside, “there is no more security,” he said.
“If you are interacting in this community, you must be vaccinated and you must wear a mask, because we are inundated with covid,” he said.
Another Our Lady of the Lake patient, Carsyn Baker, said she believed she contracted the virus when she visited her friend’s home for her birthday, sitting on a screened porch.
“I would close my eyes and feel like I couldn’t breathe,” said 21-year-old Baker. “Something in my body was telling me, like, ‘hey, you need to breathe, like, wake up.’
Baker has a kidney condition, he said, and his doctor has advised against getting vaccinated for now.
“It kind of sucks because people like me with an autoimmune disease really can’t go anywhere right now, because everyone is getting sick and it doesn’t matter what you do,” Baker said.
Ronnie Smith, another patient, was considering getting vaccinated. But he got covid-19 instead. Smith, 47, believes he contracted the virus from a friend at an outdoor barbecue.
“Two days after the event, I fell to the ground and couldn’t get up,” he said.
In a statement this week, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards asked eligible people to get vaccinated, saying all three vaccines were “safe and effective” and the best tools available to end the pandemic.
“For anyone wondering when this will end, the answer is simple: when we decide to do whatever it takes to make it over,” the governor said.
When asked what he would say to people who remain undecided about the vaccine, Matzen said: “Jump. Run. Bring your family with you, go to the clinics. There is no excuse anymore. This is real.”
“I just don’t want anybody else to end up like me,” Matzen said, “especially when the vaccine is so easy to come by now.”