Ochsner Health System, Louisiana's largest, said it will delay vaccine appointments for thousands of patients after receiving zero new doses in its regular shipment this week, complicating the health system’s mass vaccination plan that has more than 100,000 appointments on the books.

After receiving tens of thousands of doses through the first four weeks of the state’s vaccination effort, Ochsner didn’t get any new doses for patients earlier this week, when shipments typically come in, the Louisiana Department of Health and top officials at Ochsner confirmed Friday. Second doses are still flowing in, meaning patients will still be able to get the required second shot, officials said.

Ochsner will continue to use the doses it has on hand to vaccinate people between now and Wednesday. From Thursday until the following Monday, Ochsner CEO Warner Thomas said patients scheduled for vaccinations will be told their appointments are postponed. Hospital officials declined to say how many appointments are affected, but said the number is in the thousands.

After Ochsner told the Louisiana Department of Health about the high volume of appointments it had booked, the agency said it decided to re-route about 2,000 doses originally allocated to other providers but not being used that were at the state’s distributing warehouse in Shreveport. Health Department spokesperson Aly Neel said after Ochsner told the department about the volume of appointments it had, the agency on Thursday shipped out 780 doses, and on Friday made the decision to send another 1,280 to the health system. It was unclear if any had arrived as of Friday.

Still, that’s a fraction of the 9,450 doses Ochsner received the previous week. To date, Ochsner has administered 67,000 doses, Chief Medical Officer Robert Hart said, and had scheduled roughly 113,000 appointments for vaccinations. An Ochsner spokesperson said the new doses re-routed by the state don’t change the health system’s plan to delay appointments.

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Thomas said Ochsner hopes to get an influx of doses in future weeks, but said appointments beyond those dates may also have to be delayed. He said the system is working to try to find doses going unused at other providers that could be used to inoculate Ochsner patients.

The Health Department makes decisions on where to have federal shipments delivered each Thursday, Neel said. Last week, as the agency was making that decision, officials saw Ochsner had “significant remaining inventory.”

“While we have very limited vaccine made available to us ... it’s really important that we’re able to get vaccine where it’s needed most,” she said.

“We certainly can’t redirect or distribute vaccine that’s already allocated to another provider,” Neel added. “But if there is vaccine that becomes available we want to do what we could to help.” She said the roughly 2,000 doses re-routed to Ochsner were originally slated for providers who could no longer use them.

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Thomas, of Ochsner, said the state “felt like there was going to be a much larger allocation of vaccine from the federal government” than it actually received. This week, Louisiana was allocated 55,775 doses, nearly 19,000 of which were diverted to a federal program to immunize nursing home residents and staff. The Louisiana Department of Health said Friday it expects about 58,000 doses next week, and none of them are being diverted to the federal partnership.

“Everyone was going on certain guidance and assumptions of what we thought was going to come from the federal government,” Thomas said in an interview. “The state was making those assumptions, we were making those assumptions, and that’s not what happened. So we’ve had to adjust.”

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Once the state opened up vaccinations to people 70 years and older and an expanded list of health care workers, Ochsner set out on an ambitious vaccination schedule, putting roughly 113,000 appointments on the books, officials said. Meanwhile, demand exploded, with elderly patients flooding phone lines of pharmacies, many of which started waiting lists.

Louisiana’s vaccine program is administered by hundreds of providers, many of them pharmacies who have received about 200 doses so far. The Health Department said all of the 210 pharmacies and other providers getting doses for elderly patients and health workers will be resupplied next week, if they aren’t still working through their current inventory.

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The Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, which includes Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, took a different tack than Ochsner. Instead of opening up the online scheduling system to its 60,000 patients who meet the criteria, Dr. Jimmy Craven, president of the system’s physician practice, said staffers are manually calling patients to schedule appointments because of the limited supply from the state.

“Our concern is an inability to access the vaccine,” he said in an interview Thursday. “How do you schedule someone for something not knowing if you have it to deliver on what you’re scheduled for?”

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Baton Rouge General said Friday it was doubling its capacity to administer vaccines to about 1,500 per week. The hospital has opened up its scheduling system to the public via phone or website. Spokesperson Katie Johnston said the hospital is filling additional appointment slots with people on a standby list who meet the current criteria.

Hart said Ochsner will immunize thousands more patients between now and Wednesday. The hospital would not immediately schedule a new appointment date for those patients.

“We’re not giving them a new date right now,” Hart said. “Not knowing what our vaccine supply will be, what we don’t want to be doing is cancelling and rescheduling over and over for the same patient.”

Thomas added Ochsner is evaluating whether to change how it handles appointments given the lack of doses this week.

“The zero shipment of doses to us this week was definitely a surprise,” Thomas said. “We did not anticipate that.”

Staff writers Andrea Gallo, Ben Myers, and Emily Woodruff contributed to this report.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com.