BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Distributing the coronavirus vaccine is a tricky math equation for states to manage, with a limited supply of vaccine and the federal government notifying states of their weekly dose allotment only days before it will arrive.
By putting himself front and center as the decider of who will receive the vaccine first and how it will flow to hospitals, pharmacies and clinics across Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards will own the consequences of how well — or how poorly — the vaccine rollout goes.
The Democratic governor already is facing questions about the approach he’s taken in the first month of vaccinations.
Edwards acknowledged he’s not pleased with the distribution pace of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines around Louisiana. But he also said he expected the difficult logistics to need adjustments after lessons were learned in the early days of immunizations. He said his administration is working to boost the number of shots in arms and to widen access.
“I want it to be going faster than it is,” Edwards said. “Nobody’s satisfied. This is just starting. It is a tremendously complex logistical exercise, if that’s the right word — and it will improve over time, much like testing improved over time.”
Louisiana has received nearly 238,000 coronavirus vaccines through last week, and the state health department reports about 34% — nearly 81,600 doses — were confirmed as administered through Thursday, the latest data available.
The department said health providers have reported wasting 146 doses so far, the bulk of that involving 120 doses at a home health care facility in Baton Rouge that lost power during stormy weather so the vaccine thawed to an unsafe temperature for use.
Less than 2% of Louisiana’s population has received at least the first dose of the two-dose vaccine.
If vaccinations remained at that pace, it would take years, rather than months, to reach the immunization levels estimated as needed to return to what life looked like before the pandemic.
Louisiana’s vaccinated a larger percentage of people than other Deep South states, but lags the distribution rate of many other states, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The state began its rollout by offering COVID-19 vaccine doses to hospital workers, EMS employees and people who live and work at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, in line with recommendations from a panel of scientific experts that advises the CDC.
It’s unclear how many doses have been administered among the various populations because the health department said it doesn’t have such data. But it’s clear based on numbers provided by some of Louisiana’s larger hospital systems that demand for the vaccine among those workers was initially less than expected.
By Wednesday, Ochsner Health reported roughly half its system’s 16,000 employees had gotten shots so far. At the same time, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center reported about 7,300 of its system’s workers had received the vaccine — out of 17,000 employees.
Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer for Our Lady of the Lake, described challenges in combating misinformation and generating interest.
“The wariness of this vaccine especially from social media myths has been very difficult, and it’s hard to argue against something that has no scientific basis, and that’s what we find ourselves in day after day with our staff,” O’Neal said.
But she said attitudes are changing and interest is growing as more hospital workers see their colleagues immunized without severe side effects.
Hospitals had enough extra vaccine that the Edwards administration directed the facilities to start using some doses for the groups the governor made newly eligible for immunization last week: people aged 70 and older, more health care workers and people with late-stage kidney disease.
Louisiana hasn’t had trouble drawing interest from the elderly, who have inundated the phone lines and websites of pharmacies, hospitals and clinics.
Edwards said vaccine doses for the elderly will expand to all 64 parishes this week — but still in limited supply only for those who make appointments. Meanwhile, 489 state inmates who are elderly or have late-stage kidney disease will start receiving vaccinations this week as well.
The governor said he’s grateful vaccine demand is growing, and he said Louisiana eventually will hold “mass vaccination events” when the state has enough doses to distribute.
“We don’t have it today,” Edwards said.