Olivia Guidry was a 24-year-old nurse at Ochsner Lafayette General Hospital with dreams of becoming a doctor. She died earlier this month, after testing positive for COVID-19.
Guidry’s story went viral on social media. Hospital officials have not confirmed whether COVID-19 contributed to her death, though they have said an autopsy would be performed. But her case has nevertheless become a warning bell and a microcosm of this new, preventable wave of the pandemic in the U.S.
In news stories and on Twitter, what’s repeated again and again is that Guidry, an emergency room nurse, allegedly tweeted conspiracies about the vaccines that prevent COVID-19. And then she may have died of it.
The United States has what it needs to end the pandemic here — the vaccines. Yet many still have not taken the shot. In Louisiana, only half of adults have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
As the Delta variant surges across the state and hospitalizations from COVID-19 rise, public health officials are increasingly worried about one trend in particular: the low vaccination rates among health care workers.
“It certainly highlights the concerns that we share in this profession, especially people who are vulnerable, who are in contact with patients and not being vaccinated,” said Ecoee Rooney, the president of the Louisiana State Nurses Association.
Rooney didn’t know Guidry, but she knows of nurses who are unvaccinated. The organization is so worried about low vaccination rates among nurses that it recently passed a resolution making increasing vaccinations a top priority for the next few years.
As hospitalizations surge, Rooney is particularly concerned for nurses in intensive care units.
“They have been through three different, distinct waves of this virus and are really battling things like anxiety and depression,” she said.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have nearly tripled in Louisiana since the start of July, from just over 250 people to over 700. Cases are growing exponentially. In New Orleans, the most vaccinated place in the state, cases have grown nine-fold in two weeks.
The vast majority, more than 90 percent, are among unvaccinated people.
“People feel angry when people don't wear masks, people feel angry when people aren't vaccinated,” Rooney said. “They feel that it's just a very passive response to something that we really have the technology to address and control.”
Louisiana doesn’t track health care worker vaccination rates. But hospital systems report the rate is lower than the national average for adults.
Ochsner Health, the largest health system in the state, said about 61 percent of staff are vaccinated against COVID-19. Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System reported the same figure.
And among nursing home staff in Louisiana, it’s even lower. Only 47 percent have initiated or completed their vaccine series, compared to 85 percent of residents.
Nationally, only 52 percent of frontline health care workers were vaccinated by the end of March, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post.
Those figures stand in stark contrast to the rate among doctors. Across the US, more than 96 percent of physicians are vaccinated, according to a survey by the American Medical Association. The survey found those rates did not drop among doctors in the South.
What has made Guidry’s death such a flashpoint is the appearance that she chose to believe myths about the COVID-19 vaccines over the science — leading to the presumption that she did not get vaccinated — and the view that nurses, educated in medicine, should know better.
Dr. Joseph Kanter, the Louisiana state health officer, said he is surprised by the low vaccination rates for frontline health care workers, those who’ve seen in detail how devastating COVID can be.
“It pains me to think that they remain on the front lines, but have not availed themselves of this protection,” Kanter said. “They're very vulnerable. And that doesn't sit easily with me.”
The health department has recorded cases of outbreaks at health care settings other than nursing homes, Kanter said, and they have often occurred between staff, as they spend time together at work or in the break room.
Kanter works with nurses as an emergency room doctor for LCMC Health in New Orleans, some of whom are not vaccinated.
“Some have fallen victim to the same myths and untruths that are out there in the general community,” he said. “And I think all of us try our best to break through that. And sometimes it's successful. Sometimes it's not.”
In tweets attributed to Guidry, she writes that the vaccines were designed to control people and alter their DNA.
The former is pure conspiracy, the latter a serious misunderstanding of how the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines work. Both vaccines, called mRNA vaccines, send instructions to cells to produce a protein that stimulates the production of antibodies to the coronavirus. They do not change a person’s DNA.
Another myth widely circulating on social media is that the vaccines impact a woman’s fertility — also thoroughly debunked. The vaccines are considered safe for pregnant and lactating people by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on what it calls the “limited” data currently available.
COVID-19 can be especially dangerous during pregnancy. During a press conference with the governor last week, Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake hospital, made a plea in particular for pregnant women being admitted to her hospital with COVID-19.
“Our pregnant mothers are at risk. We're seeing them admitted. We're seeing them ventilated, and we're seeing the loss of their children,” O’Neal said.
Dr. Veronica Gillispie-Bell, an OB-GYN who works for the Louisiana Department of Health on fetal and maternal health, said she’s heard the fertility myth often, including nurses who told her it was the reason they would not get vaccinated.
Both Kanter and Rooney said the same geographic disparities in vaccination rates seem to apply to health care workers, meaning a nurse in New Orleans would be more likely to be vaccinated than one in Lafayette, where only 41 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, according to an analysis by the New York Times.
There’s also a strong correlation between political views and vaccination rates — with those on the right far more likely to distrust the vaccines.
Katner thinks vaccination rates among nurses and the general population will keep rising.
“I just hope it's not too late,” he said.
The Louisiana State Nurses Association is partnering with the state health department to survey nurses’ for their views of the vaccines.
In the meantime, Rooney, the association’s president, told me that she’s thinking about her friends and colleagues forced to work during a statewide and national nursing shortage, people who feel a moral responsibility to try and save lives that can’t all be saved.
“The nurses are the ones who are holding people's hands or holding their, you know, putting their arms around them as they pass. That's too much. It is too much of an emotional, spiritual, mental burden on our health care professionals,” she said.
“And to see this happening again,” she added, “is devastating.”
Some hospitals in Louisiana are now restricting visitors, just as they did when the pandemic was at its peak.
Once again, it may be nurses who are asked to watch people die — only this time, there will have been something that, for most patients, could have saved them.