Louisiana launched a COVID-19 vaccine hotline on Thursday that the public can call to schedule a vaccination appointment or talk directly with a medical professional who can answer questions or concerns about the life-saving jab.
The hotline — available at 1-855-453-0774 — is targeted at those hard-to-reach communities who may not have the internet access necessary to schedule an appointment online, or a relationship with a primary care physician who can help parse through fact and fiction about the vaccine.
"What we're seeing is people with a lot of questions, understandable questions. Face it: some parts of COVID are very confusing," said Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health director. "That tells us there's an opportunity to create conversations."
Its launch comes as the state's marathon vaccination effort enters a new leg: the supply of available doses is now far outpacing demand and appointments are plentiful, prompting public health officials to ramp up their persuasion campaign.
A pilot program aimed at increasing vaccination rates in nine, low-income ZIP codes across the state will kick-off its door-to-door canvassing efforts this weekend. The goal is to knock on every door at least once and sign up residents for a future pop-up vaccination event in the community.
Together Louisiana, a faith-based network of civic groups, is managing the pilot sites in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, among several others, and put out a call this week looking for applicants to fill dozens of paid canvassing positions. The effort will also include direct mailers and phone banking, much like a political, get-out-to-vote campaign.
The vaccine hotline is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Sunday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. It's staffed by 50 cross-trained contact tracers and 10 medical professionals.
Louisiana, along with the rest of the country, will receive significantly fewer doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week. Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state will get just 8,000 doses next week — an 88% drop from the 67,700 doses received this week.
The nationwide shortage comes after nearly 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine were thrown out following a mix-up in ingredients at a manufacturing plant in Baltimore. The error did not effect doses already delivered, and the White House told states to expect variability in supply through the month of April.
Dr. David Holcombe, the public health director in the region centered around Alexandria, said the state in recent weeks has homed in on two vaccine-hesitant groups: Black residents, who have historically been mistreated by the White medical establishment, and poor, White, Republican men.
An LSU poll this week found that roughly 40% of self-identified Republicans weren't interested in getting vaccinated, a strikingly partisan showing when compared to the 13% of Democrats who said the same.
The poll also found that 44% of those aged 30 to 49 didn’t plan on taking the vaccine, with comparable levels of apathy in the 18 to 29 age range.
To better persuade GOP voters to get vaccinated, Holcombe said health officials have advised them to appeal to ideas of "personal liberty" and the "right to choose" and emphasize that getting vaccinated is the right choice because contracting COVID-19 is much worse than any side effects from the vaccine.
Kanter rejected the idea that there's a large chunk of people that have completely written off the vaccine, adding that when you have a one-on-one conversation, where you can explain complicated concepts — like why the vaccine was developed so quickly — you begin to change minds.
"When they learn that it's really not because any corners were cut, but because red tape and bureaucracy were cut with the approval process, we find that that builds confidence," Kanter said. Louisiana will soon distribute vaccines to smaller clinics, Kanter said, allowing more of those conversations between patient and doctor to take place.
Edwards lifted occupancy limits last week on bars, restaurants, gyms and other businesses, though the state’s mask mandate and social distancing requirements remained in place. It's unclear what effect the loosened restrictions will have on the spread of the virus, given that it can take several weeks for infections to take hold and appear in testing numbers.
While the state's coronavirus case counts and hospitalizations have remained relatively steady, Kanter said there are reasons to remain cautious, pointing to 222 confirmed and suspected cases of the more transmissible U.K. variant, the majority of which are clustered in southwest Louisiana.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the variant makes up roughly 13.4% of all cases in Louisiana, far below the national average at 27.2%. Kanter said he was keeping a close watch on Michigan, where daily case counts now mirror those seen during the December surge, though variants there make up an estimated 39% of cases.
As of Thursday, 28.1% of Louisiana's population — or more than 1.3 million residents — had received at least one shot, while just under 900,000 residents had completed their vaccine series.
"While we have good base of vaccine coverage, and that base is not insignificant, it’s not herd immunity," Kanter said.