A doctor’s impassioned plea for people to wear masks and get vaccinated as the delta variant of COVID-19 surges in the South has been viewed more than six million times. During a press conference this week, Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shared how dire the situation is for their hospital — and what that means for everyone, including those without COVID-19.
“I have seen people in four-wheeler accidents and motorcycle accidents and farming accidents who sat in ERs in their small towns. Those are my people. Those are your family members. And when they get maimed today, they’re not coming to a trauma center because there are no more beds,” she said in the video of the press conference. “We have 67 empty beds in our hospital because we can’t find staff.”
O’Neal then made a simple request: Wear masks and get vaccinated.
“We are out of things in our pockets to open beds. We need you to open our beds for us. Please do that by getting vaccinated today, which will help us open beds in the next several weeks, and by putting your mask on today,” she said. “We’ve always had to shut down other things and we’re not going to do that this time. We’re going to ask you to vaccinate and mask instead. But if we all do it right now, our numbers will be better.”
O’Neal said that colleagues across the country have reached out to thank her for her message showing the realities of the pandemic.
“It is incredibly important for us to really get into the details of what this really means for the community. I have said for 18 months that we are full,” she told TODAY. “That doesn’t tell people what’s really going on. Hospitals are complex, medical care is complex, and so I’ve continued to struggle to try to refine how do I get the layperson — who maybe has never had a stay in the hospital — to understand what it’s like.”
She added that hopes that by offering “more relatable” stories that more people will adopt practices that slow the spread of COVID-19.
Louisiana is one of several Southern states struggling with a COVID-19 surge fueled by the delta variant. According to NBC News, the state’s Region 5, which includes the southwest part of the state, has only two ICU beds open. Neighboring states, such as Mississippi only reported having six ICU beds in the entire state and Arkansas had 25 ICU beds.
“Two weeks ago we stood here … with 36 COVID-19 patients in the hospital. Today we have 155, which is our max from last April 2020,” O’Neal said during the press conference. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, honestly, when you think about the numbers. But we are the largest hospital in the state. We have almost 800 beds with 713 people admitted today and no one diagnosis should take up one quarter of your hospital. It doesn’t happen. It’s not imaginable — except for now.”
O’Neal shares in the video that her hospital, one of the few in the state capable of caring for severely ill COVID-19 patents, wants a room for everyone who needs one. But they don’t have the staff or the space for so many sick people.
“When I left the hospital earlier there were 23 patients on the board, waiting for a transfer into our hospital for the ICU,” she said. “You look at every single one of those ICU beds, and you spend all day trying to figure out how you can staff another one. Those are 23 people sitting in an ER somewhere.”
Some patients waiting to be transferred are in an emergency room that only has one physician, she shared. Others are at emergency rooms that do not even have a hospital. As they wait, patients suffer.
“That patient will lose muscle, they will lose years of their life, but they will stay in that ER because there are no more beds left,” she said during the press conference.
O’Neal also admitted at the press conference that the surge impacts the quality of care they can offer their patients and that it places “an incredible pressure on the rest of our patients and our hospital staff.”
“When you come inside our walls, it is quite obvious to you that these are the darkest days of this pandemic,” she said. "We are no longer giving adequate care to patients."
While O’Neal wanted people to understand the challenges health care workers are facing, she also feels optimistic that her message is changing some minds.
“I am very hopeful. It is a little bit of an awakening for all of us that this surge was so bad,” she said. “This is the worst surge we’ve had and it has changed people’s minds about vaccination. We’re seeing that in our community and I hope to see that continue.”