The coronavirus pandemic in Louisiana has marked some of the deadliest months on record for the state. From March 1 to August 1, about 24,000 people died, a 27% increase compared to the same five-month span in at least the last six years, according to a new study analyzing deaths during the pandemic.
Those cases are what scientists call excess deaths — the gap between reported deaths and expected deaths. The loss of life reflects the true toll of the virus, which impacts far greater numbers than those who die after a COVID-19 infection.
In the past seven months, Louisiana hospitals have had to meet countless challenges as the coronavirus strained their staff and hospital capacity.
Louisiana’s increase is higher than the U.S. average, which was 20%, according to the analysis, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association. Of all states, Louisiana ranked fourth for its per capita rate of excess deaths, behind only New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
According to the study, three-fourths of Louisiana’s excess deaths are attributed to coronavirus. But about 25%, or 1,232 people, are unaccounted for by COVID-19 infection.
“For every three people known to have died of COVID-19 in Louisiana, another person died due to some aspect of the pandemic,” said Dr. Stephen Woolf, study author and epidemiologist at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Within that 25% there are two groups of people. Some of those people were infected, but their death certificate didn’t mention it — possibly because they died at home or it wasn’t confirmed in a laboratory before or after death.
The second group is made up of people who were not infected but died because of the disruption to health care the pandemic caused.
“There are people dying of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and so forth because of interruptions in their care,” said Woolf.
In Louisiana, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia doubled. There were 64 such deaths in the first week of 2020, but 127 in the week ending April 11 during the peak of the virus. Diabetes deaths also increased significantly, Woolf said.
Those interruptions are driven both by fear of seeking care during the pandemic and a strapped medical system, he said.
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“My sense is that these deaths that are caused by disruptions are occurring more during surges when the system is being overwhelmed,” said Woolf. “In calmer times, people come out for appointments and the health system has the capacity to deal with them. When hospitals are getting overrun and emergency room patients are in hallways because there’s no room for them, that’s an environment where we worry about these kinds of deaths occurring more often.”
The findings of the report match up with what the state has reported and what doctors are seeing in hospitals, said Dr. Rebekah Gee, CEO of LSU Healthcare Services Division and former Secretary of