With severe winter weather still hobbling Louisiana’s vaccine effort, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that he will expand eligibility for the vaccine to nearly half a million additional people, including K-12 teachers and staff, after the federal government promised an increased allotment of doses in the coming weeks.
The decision will test the state’s ability to administer larger volumes of doses, an ability already being put to the test by the winter storm, which delayed the shipments of tens of thousands of doses of vaccine this week. Thousands of appointments are being rescheduled for next week, the same time the new groups will become eligible.
“Is it going to be as smooth as it would have been if we hadn’t had this winter weather event this week? Probably not,” Edwards said.
In addition to teachers and support staff who work at any school or daycare in the state, public or private, all pregnant women and non-emergency medical transportation workers will have access to the vaccine. People will also be able to get shots if they are between the ages of 55 and 64 and have one of several specific health conditions: Cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, Down Syndrome, heart conditions, immunocompromised state from solid organ transplant, obesity, sickle cell disease and Type 2 diabetes. Smokers in that age range will also have access.
People will have to fill out a form attesting they have one of the conditions in order to get the shot, Edwards said.
The decision comes two weeks after Edwards expanded eligibility to include people age 65 and older. That added 275,000 people to the population eligible to get vaccinated. With the addition of nearly half a million people Monday, roughly 1.6 million of the state's 4.6 million residents -- or just over one in three -- will be eligible.
Teachers groups and school officials for months have prodded the governor, a Democrat who counts teachers unions as a close ally, to include them in the priority group for vaccines. But the governor hesitated, citing a lack of supply.
Next week, the state is expecting more than 90,000 doses, an increase from previous weeks. And Edwards said President Joe Biden’s administration has promised that will be a “floor” for the coming three weeks. Some of the increase is because of an accounting change that the federal government made at the request of Pfizer. Providers were often getting six doses out of vials that were originally thought to have five, so the government is now counting the extra dose in each vial.
The governor said the uptick allowed him to expand eligibility. Still, demand is expected to outstrip supply, as it has since Jan. 1, when people ages 70 and older began to have access.
Further complicating things, providers from Shreveport to New Orleans reported delays in shipments and postponed vaccine appointments this week, after storms covered roads with ice and effectively shut down much of the state.
Morris & Dickson, the Shreveport-based distributor hired by the state to take in large shipments from manufacturers and dole them out in smaller quantities around Louisiana, hadn’t received any shipments since last week, said Paul Dickson Jr., the vice president of operations. He said the packages were being held up by FedEx and UPS.
The Biden administration briefed Edwards and other governors earlier this week on the delays, saying airport traffic ground to a halt in some places, and that employees of the drug makers had difficulty getting to manufacturing facilities to process packages.
Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer, said it will likely take a week or two before providers here can catch up. Louisiana had been administering an average of 22,969 doses of vaccines per day in February. Over the past three days, that number dropped to under 10,000, according to Health Department figures.
“We’re going to have to double up next week as best we can in terms of the number of doses we can administer in the state of Louisiana,” Kanter said. “We’re really going to be asking a lot of our vaccine providers next week.”
He added that people should get their first or second dose even if the appointment was delayed because of weather.
At Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, Dawn Pevey, an Ochsner executive in charge of distribution, said 1,100 doses of Moderna’s vaccine scheduled to arrive this week hadn’t made it as of Thursday. That means 1,100 appointments will have to be moved to next week, she said.
Plus, the no-show rate for scheduled appointments is up, from under 1% normally to around 3% this week, she said, likely because roads were treacherous in places. While the system’s south Louisiana campuses received doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, Ochsner’s facilities in north Louisiana haven’t yet, she added.
In Shreveport, LSU Health Sciences Center -- in partnership with Christus Shreveport-Bossier Health and Willis Knight Health System -- had been doing about 1,500 shots a day at a drive up community vaccination site. That was shut down Monday because of the storm, said LSU Health spokesperson Lisa Babin, and won’t resume until next week.
That meant about 5,000 doses that would have gone into arms this week are delayed until next week, she said. Similar sites in rural parts of the state -- this week providers were scheduled to administer shots in Minden and Natchitoches -- were also shut down.
“Everyone is encouraged not to be on the roads,” Babin said. “People just aren’t equipped. They’re not experienced driving in this weather.”
Our Lady of the Lake closed Monday and Tuesday because of weather, but resumed shots Wednesday, said spokesperson Ryan Cross. The hospital system will work through the weekend to inoculate people scheduled to get their dose this week, he said.
The Louisiana Department of Health had planned to hold a vaccination clinic on Friday and Saturday in north Baton Rouge as part of an effort to reach more people in Black communities, but that was delayed until later this month, the agency said in a news release.
Lake Charles Memorial Health System also canceled vaccine appointments earlier this week as the winter storms pummelled that area. But spokesperson Matt Felder said Thursday that vaccine appointments had resumed and that the hospital had enough doses on hand to complete them.
Asked whether he has concerns the delayed appointments will create a bottleneck when another half-million people become eligible on Monday, Edwards said he has “enough concerns to keep me awake every single night.”
He said Health Department leaders advised him it was the right time to expand the pool of eligible people, so he did. At the same time, he asked people to be patient.
“Understand the providers are having to juggle a number of balls in the air as they reschedule the doses they were unable to administer this week,” Edwards said. “We may have to be open later at night, we may have to do more weekend events and that sort of thing.”
Teachers and other people who work at K-12 schools will go through the same process that elderly patients have navigated to get their shots. That involves poring over a list of providers with vaccines posted on the LDH website each Monday and calling or going online to try to schedule an appointment.
Providers have said the pace of calls rises dramatically when eligibility is expanded, which can cause long wait times for patients.
Teachers and other school leaders praised the move. More than two months ago, state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley had asked the governor and others to make about 166,000 teachers and school support personnel a priority for the vaccine.
“This signifies the value of our essential employees and will enable even more Louisiana centers and schools to be fully open to serve students, families and communities,” Brumley said.
A total of 67% of public school students are attending in-person classes, while 20% are relying on virtual instruction and 13% are getting a combination of virtual and in-person.
Brumley said the state Department of Education will not push teachers and others to get the vaccine and that ensuring access was his goal.
“That is a very personal decision for everyone across the state,” Brumley told reporters. “We don’t intend to take a position on whether or not an employee should or should not get the vaccine.”
Brumley said that, based on conversations with school leaders, “it seems like somewhere around half of employees throughout the state have indicated an interest in receiving the vaccine.”
Staff writers Andrea Gallo and Will Sentell contributed to this story.