BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Nearly four months after coronavirus vaccinations began, Louisiana is seeing fewer people clamoring for the surging supply of shots, and that fall-off in interest is happening far too soon to contain the spread of the virus.
Talk of waiting your turn has ended, replaced with pleas for people to sign up for available vaccine appointments and to urge their family and friends to do the same. Persuading people appears to be harder than public health officials hoped.
Now, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, state leaders, faith-based organizations, civic groups and others are embarking on the difficult task of cajoling the uninterested, the worried and the iffy across Louisiana — and connecting those who are interested but have encountered obstacles.
“We are soon going to get to the point where we’re going to have more doses than arms unless we overcome some of this hesitancy and increase our confidence in the vaccines, and that’s what we’re working on 24 hours a day now,” Edwards said in a radio interview.
More than 1.1 million people in Louisiana — 24% of the state’s total population — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state health department data. Nearly 655,000 people have been fully immunized, about 14%. (The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses; the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one.)
That’s far below the threshold that scientists believe would be needed to stop the uncontrolled spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus — a worrisome situation as more virulent and contagious strains of the virus have reached the United States.
Louisiana is falling behind most other states in per-capita vaccine distribution, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To try to combat the low numbers, Edwards is throwing open access to the shots to everyone age 16 and older, starting Monday, to end any uncertainty about who might be eligible. The state also is diving deep into vaccination data, to identify which communities they’ll target for more direct outreach.
The health department is readying a call center, expected to be up and running within the week, to respond to vaccine concerns and questions and help set up appointments for those with internet issues or who aren’t tech savvy.
And the agency is working with local organizations on a planned get-out-the-vote-style effort that will have people knocking on doors and making phone calls to areas where few people have been vaccinated.
A poll released in February by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that while 67% of Americans plan to get vaccinated or have already done so, 15% are certain they won’t and 17% say probably not. Many expressed doubts about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.
Dr. Joe Kanter, Edwards’ chief public health adviser, said he still believes Louisiana can reach herd immunity. He said more and more people seem to grow comfortable with the vaccine as they see their friends, family, co-workers and neighbors get immunized with no significant side effects.
But he acknowledged: “It’s very clear to us that there’s going to be a lot of work that has to happen … a lot of outreach, a lot of meeting people where they’re at.”
Some parishes have started delivering vaccines to people who are elderly and disabled at their homes if they have limited mobility. Specialized vaccination events have been held for fishermen, postal workers and teachers.
Louisiana has been doing drive-thru and walk-in mass immunizations at convention centers, sports stadiums, fairgrounds, event centers, college campuses and churches — in coordination with hospitals, clinics and pharmacies and using the National Guard to help staff the sites.
Dr. Tina Stefanski, the state’s medical director for the Acadiana region, said public health officials are working with local leaders to identify underserved communities and steer vaccine doses.
For example, she said a nurse helped set up a vaccination event at a Buddhist temple in Lafayette Parish for the local Laotian community. Stefanski’s office is working with seafood processing sites in the region to bring vaccine doses to the employees and is reaching out to grocery stores in the Hispanic community to try to set up small vaccine events on site.
“It’s still kind of word of mouth. It’s finding people in those communities who know of areas of need,” Stefanski said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.