Wednesday was the day Elmo Sholes had been waiting months for.

The 100-year-old Morganza resident drove himself to Baton Rouge Veterans Administration Community Based Outpatient Clinic to receive the first dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine after the facility began its rollout.

Sholes, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II in the Philippines and turned 100 years old last month, says he sees the vaccine as a path to normalcy that will also allow him to see family and friends once again.

“A stitch in time saves nine," he said while letting out a chuckle, minutes after getting jabbed.

He was among the 22 older veterans and staff to get their first round of vaccines at the Baton Rouge outpatient clinic on Wednesday morning. It was part of the first push to safeguard some of the capital region’s most vulnerable people against the novel coronavirus.

Since Dec. 14, when Pfizer’s vaccine received approval for emergency use, the VA has administered over 6,000 vaccine doses at the Veterans Medical Center in New Orleans. VA leaders say their goal is to deliver first doses to all Louisiana veterans who wish to receive them, though the timing depends on the availability of vaccines and participation.

The vaccine requires a first dose, then a booster shot a few weeks later to achieve high-level strength against the virus.

The Baton Rouge facility received 100 doses of Moderna’s vaccine this week and reached out to about 3,000 people deemed high-risk, such as older veterans, those with underlying medical conditions and staff who provide direct care.

“We’ve planned ahead. I feel very proud of staff here and in New Orleans for coordinating this to ensure we don’t waste a single dosage and that we get the vaccine out as quickly as possible to all of our veterans,” said Dr. Daniel Kasprzyk, the center’s chief medical director.

Clinicians set up tables in an area of the lobby, as they loaded syringes from the vaccine vials kept in orange tackle boxes. They also discovered a pleasant surprise: two extra “angel” doses they squeezed from the vials that were put to use.

The rollout to vaccinate the state’s most vulnerable residents and frontline health workers comes as Louisiana, like much of the country, is still in the throes of the pandemic.

New infections have ballooned since November, and hospitalizations recently reached higher levels than any other point of pandemic. Confirmed deaths linked to the virus have pressed past 7,500 people, and state leaders say the impacts from Christmas and New Years’ activities may soon be felt.

But, despite the surge, vaccinations have been moving ahead faster in recent days compared to the early weeks of those efforts.

The latest state Department of Health data shows some 138,000 people have received their first shots, and nearly 22,000 have gotten the booster.

Marion Bahlinger, a 95-year-old World War II Army veteran who fought in Europe, said the pandemic has kept him cooped up since last spring, as it has many older residents. The vaccine is likely to change that.

“I’m kind of excited to get it. I was real glad when they called me,” Bahlinger said a few minutes after getting a shot in his left arm. “I’ve been waiting for it.”

Born just a few years after the 1918 influenza pandemic gripped much of the country, he still recalls stories passed down by his family on the toll the flu virus took on his relatives. A number of them didn’t survive.

Despite already falling ill to the virus, Leonard Bell, 96, and his son Michael Bell, 72, of Baton Rouge say they felt the extra protection given by the vaccine was worth getting it.

As a Vietnam veteran, Michael Bell received his first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine at the New Orleans VA hospital before taking his dad to get his on Wednesday. He said he sees the shots as an assurance that neither of them would get sick again.

Leonard Bell, an Air Force veteran who fought in the Pacific during World War II, began feeling symptoms of the coronavirus in November. His son, who cares for him, developed symptoms not long after. The illness sapped their ability to breathe normally — it took weeks for them to recover.

Health experts, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have exhorted people who’ve contracted COVID-19 to still get the vaccine when they’re able to.

Scientists are still unsure how long immunity lasts after a person is sickened by the virus, though research suggests immunity may extend for months. Vaccines, on the other hand, provide a more optimized immune response.

When Leonard Bell recovered from the illness after five weeks, he had lost a significant amount of weight. His son says they were both lucky.

“It ain’t nothing to play with,” he said. “It’s a life or death thing.”


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad