As 10,500 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trickled to pharmacies in Louisiana for the first time Monday, pharmacists reported being overwhelmed with inquiries from the elderly and others newly eligible for the immunization and the response briefly crashed the state’s website shortly after it unveiled the pharmacies participating.
In many places, far more patients were put on a waitlist than actually scheduled appointments to get vaccinated. While the governor made 640,000 new people eligible for vaccinations immediately, the 107 pharmacies getting vaccines this week will only receive about 100 doses each. The pharmacies set to receive vaccines this week were unveiled Monday morning.
“It’s probably been over 1,000 people calling,” said Alex Nguyen, a pharmacist at Westbank Pharmacy in Harvey. “We can’t pick up the phones in time.”
The flood of calls and inquiries from people aged 70 and older and a list of health workers who are also now eligible for vaccinations comes after a slow start to Louisiana’s vaccine effort. The state as of last week had only reported 45,289 doses administered. By comparison, the state received 79,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine alone in the first two weeks, not to mention thousands more of Moderna’s vaccine.
Until Monday, only certain hospital workers and people who live or work at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities were eligible for vaccinations. But Gov. John Bel Edwards announced last week the next priority group, which includes people 70 and older, end stage renal disease facility personnel and patients, ambulatory and outpatient health care workers, home agency patients and workers and schools of allied health students, residents and staff. A small number of people with end-stage renal disease had already started receiving vaccinations before the announcement.
Officials warned the newly eligible group that there would be far more demand than supply at first.
“With this first very limited allotment of vaccine, we’re not going to be able to vaccinate everyone this week,” said Aly Neel, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health.
The pharmacies now included in the state’s mass vaccination effort span 51 parishes and include five in Baton Rouge, six in New Orleans and one in Lafayette. Forty-five chain stores, like Walgreens and Albertsons, along with 62 independent pharmacies and pharmacies tied to major health systems, such as Ochsner, are included.
The state also urged people to call their local pharmacy to schedule an appointment, and not to show up to the facility expecting to be vaccinated.
Now that Louisiana is receiving COVID-19 vaccines each week, the state Health Department is turning its focus to a crucial part of reaching he…
Almost immediately after the locations were announced Monday morning, many pharmacies filled up their 100 or so appointments and started putting people on a waitlist. Dozens of pharmacies – including at one point every New Orleans pharmacy on the list – had busy signals when phoned around midday Monday.
Westbank Pharmacy received its doses Monday and was slated to begin vaccinating in the late afternoon, Nguyen said. But the state couldn’t say how soon more doses would be arriving, so the pharmacy stopped adding people to the waitlist as it neared 500 people to avoid promising vaccines it couldn’t be sure it would have.
Pharmacists said the rush of calls came at an already busy time, as their normal business picks up at the beginning of a New Year.
State Sen. Fred Mills, a pharmacist in Parks, said his phone was ringing all day Monday even though his pharmacy isn’t one of the 107 pharmacies receiving doses in the first batch this week. People were even calling from outside his legislative district inquiring about how to get immunized. The waitlist at his pharmacy for the vaccine was going up “like a geyser,” he said.
He also spoke to pharmacists who said the biggest issue was the meager number of doses in the first batch. Officials said most pharmacies would receive 100 doses this week.
“When you go statewide, it’s just not much,” he said.
Edwards said last week he was not “ecstatic” about the number of people vaccinated in the state so far, but he hoped the numbers would soon improve. Beyond the “Tier 1” of the Phase 1B group eligible starting this week for the vaccine, he also made a host of others – including judges, corrections officers, K-12 school and daycare workers, postal workers, public transit workers and grocery store workers – part of the next in line in Phase 1B of the vaccination effort. Those people are expected to be able to start accessing vaccines soon.
Pharmacists were also figuring out how to make sure they don’t waste doses if people cancel their appointments, with many of them planning to go down the waitlist to call patients willing to come into the pharmacy before the doses expire.
Neel said hospitals and other providers in the state have reported wasting 13 doses of the vaccine so far, and the agency sent guidance to pharmacies and other facilities on how to avoid wasting doses by finding patients to inoculate. For instance, the document said if the vaccine is set to expire within six hours, providers should find someone within phase 1A, and if that’s not possible, go down the list of outpatient health workers, people aged 70 and older or “other persons not identified above.”
The agency also told pharmacies they take “full responsibility” for making sure they can secure, store and not waste doses in a guidance document sent to participating locations. Pharmacies should make patients show proof of age with an ID or an ID badge showing they’re employed at a health center that qualifies them for the vaccine. It also said the agency wants “all Louisianans to have access to the vaccine, regardless of immigration status.”
Pharmacies won’t need to ration doses to save vaccines for the second injection, which takes place weeks later, according to the guidance document. But they will need to make sure people get the second dose at the proper time, and are expected to report each vaccination to the state within 24 hours.
CareSouth Medical and Dental in Baton Rouge, one of the 107 pharmacies set to receive doses this week, is putting patients who call on a list that will be continuously used as the facility receives more doses, said spokesperson Michelle McCalope.
“We were inundated with so many calls our lines got jammed up,” she said. “Once the word got out in the media we were one of the distribution sites the phones started ringing.”
By 9:30 in the morning on Monday, Randy Carr, a pharmacist at Carr Drugs in Algiers, said he already had 100 people signed up for vaccinations.
“Our biggest problem today is it’s the first Monday of the first month of the new year, and everybody’s insurance changed,” he said. “It’s normally a difficult day to start. But we did call in extra staff just to take care of the vaccine, answer the phones.”
In Zachary, Dry’s Pharmacy had an “overwhelming response,” said pharmacist Jennifer Guillory Venable. More than 500 people were already on the waitlist as of Monday morning, she said. The pharmacy will start administering them Tuesday, and plans to do 10 to 20 a day so it can continue operating its normal business at the same time.
“We have five phone lines and all five have been lit up all morning,” she said.
Mills said the state made it easier for pharmacists to vaccinate people after the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009. After bringing pharmacists into the fold en masse to immunize residents during that outbreak, Mills said the Legislature passed laws making it easier for pharmacists to administer vaccines. Since then, pharmacies have gotten efficient at delivering various vaccines.
“It’s not like it’s a brand new program,” he said. “It’s a brand new vaccine.”
Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this story.