BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As coronavirus vaccine interest plummeted in Louisiana, the state saw a spike in the number of wasted shots, with more than 79,000 vaccine doses trashed largely because health providers couldn’t find enough arms quickly enough.
Wasted doses of the life-saving vaccines numbered fewer than 1,500 only four months ago. But data provided to The Associated Press by the Louisiana Department of Health showed the unused, discarded shots surged to more than 50 times that number by July 23.
During an online news conference Wednesday, there was obvious consternation over low vaccination rates in the voice of Warner Thomas, CEO of the 40-hospital Ochsner Health system, where the COVID-19 patient count hit 548 — a 700% increase from a month ago.
“There’s so much misinformation and mistrust out there that it’s undermining the positive impact that this vaccine can have on the public,” he said. “We’ve got thousands and thousands of doses of vaccine we can give to people. We just don’t have people that want to take the vaccine.”
Another 161,000 doses of the three coronavirus vaccines available across the state are slated to expire within 14 days — a waste the Health Department hopes to avoid either through a possible federal decision to extend the expiration dates or through increased vaccine interest.
While Louisiana has one of the nation’s lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates, the highly contagious delta variant that is driving record numbers of new infections across parishes is boosting interest in immunizations, said Aly Neel, with the Health Department. The number of people seeking first doses of the shot doubled last week, as more unvaccinated people with COVID-19 flooded hospitals.
“We are seeing a massive uptick in vaccine administration, so likely this all will not expire,” Neel said Wednesday in a statement provided with the data detailing the looming expiration dates.
Waste is not uncommon in mass immunization efforts, and the doses trashed in Louisiana so far represent less than 1% of the nearly 3.5 million coronavirus vaccines that reached arms.
But the throwing away of doses in Louisiana and other states across the United States come as millions of people around the globe still are waiting and clamoring for the inoculation against the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus.
Louisiana already is only drawing down a sliver of the vaccine doses made available by the federal government each week, despite an all-out push to get people interested in the shots that includes offering $2.3 million in cash prizes and scholarships.
Of the 79,226 Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses wasted in Louisiana, nearly 17,000 simply weren’t used before their expiration date, according to the Health Department. More than 48,000 were wasted because the vials were opened but hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and other providers couldn’t find someone to take the doses, the data shows. The remaining doses were lost to power outages, storage problems, mishandling, and other problems.
Neel said some rural health care providers, in particular, are having difficulty distributing the doses because one vial of vaccine can contain as many as two dozen doses that must be used within a short time before they spoil.
“In a few instances, we are beginning to see that the increase in Moderna doses per vial from 10 to 14 is being reported by providers as a factor for increased loss,” she said.
The silver lining to the delta variant and Louisiana’s fourth surge of the pandemic is that it appears to be renewing interest in the COVID-19 vaccine. First doses of the shot grew 40% two weeks ago and then grew another 87% last week, according to Health Department data.
Still, Louisiana has a long way to go to reach the vaccination rates of many other states.
Only about 37% of Louisiana’s residents are fully vaccinated and 41% have started the vaccination process. Only four states have lower vaccination rates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although more than 90% of doctors in the Ochsner system are vaccinated, Thomas said about 63% of overall employees have received the first dose. He said misinformation is a problem even among people who work in medical settings.
Meanwhile, Louisiana is seeing one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation, fueled by the delta variant.
Statewide, the number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus illness grew Wednesday to 1,524, more than five times the number at the start of July. Thousands of new COVID-19 cases are confirmed daily. Medical leaders say the COVID-19 patients they’re seeing are largely unvaccinated.
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