The number of Louisiana residents who have completed their COVID-19 vaccine series topped 1 million for the first time Thursday, a reassuring milestone tempered by warnings from public health officials that the deadly virus is showing early signs of a comeback.
Hospitals across the state are reporting an uptick in COVID-like illnesses in their emergency rooms, particularly among young people, and the number of tests coming back positive has jumped slightly after weeks of steady declines, said Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer.
Meanwhile, the state’s inoculation campaign will get a proverbial shot in the arm Friday with the opening of a federally backed mass vaccination center in Baton Rouge capable of administering up to 20,000 doses a week. The site opens at 8 a.m. and is located behind the Bon Carre Business Center on Florida Boulevard.
“This operation could not have come at a better time for Louisiana,” Kanter said. “While we’ve made great progress coming down from a high peak around New Year's and Christmas, that progress has stalled in Louisiana.”
Kanter pointed to a slight increase in the percentage of coronavirus tests statewide coming back positive – up from 2.2% two weeks ago to 2.6% this week – as evidence that Louisiana could soon join several other states experiencing another surge in cases.
Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have also creeped up, rising to 338 patients on Thursday after hovering around 300 last week, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health.
Gov. John Bel Edwards lifted capacity limits for Louisiana’s businesses at the end of March, while maintaining the state’s mask mandate and social distancing requirements. If that decision had any impact on infection rates, now would be the time it would begin to appear in the data given that symptoms from the disease can take up to two weeks to appear.
“There are exactly two things we can do to protect ourselves from what could be a fourth spike: one is to institute more mitigation measures and the other is to increase vaccinations,” Kanter said. “I think everyone would much rather do the latter.”
The supply of vaccines has eclipsed demand in recent weeks, with Louisiana ranking in the bottom three of all 50 states for percentage of the population given at least one shot, at 30.3%, according to federal data. That encompasses just over 1.4 million residents.
The national effort to reach herd immunity and overcome the pandemic hit a hiccup on Tuesday when federal regulators recommended a “pause” in using the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine while they investigate reports of rare but potentially dangerous side effects.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said the pause came after reports of unusual blood clots in six women ages to 18 to 48 years old, starting 6 to 13 days after they were vaccinated. A recommendation from an expert advisory committee to the CDC on future use of the vaccine is expected within the next week and a half.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine represents about 3.7% of all doses administered in Louisiana so far, Kanter said.
“If anyone has any questions about how serious we take safety with these vaccines, this is the evidence right here,” Kanter said. “Six cases out of 7 million is what prompted this. We have pledged to you from Day 1 that we will roll out these vaccines safely and transparently, and this is evidence of that right now.”
The mass vaccination site in Baton Rouge will operate Tuesdays through Sundays for the next eight weeks and appointments can be made on the Department of Health’s website or by calling the state’s vaccination hotline at 1-855-453-0774. Walk-ups are also accepted. Free jambalaya will be served on Friday from 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Drive-thru hours run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays; and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
“We’ve overcome quite a lot and this is essentially the last two minutes of the game,” Kanter said. “If you’ve already been vaccinated, I think you for that, but I have a request for you: I’d like for you to think of yourself as an ambassador…try to encourage those around you to get vaccinated as well.”