All Louisianans older than 16 will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine starting next week, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Wednesday, making the state one of the first in the U.S. to extend shots to anyone who wants one after Joe Biden’s administration told governors they would be getting a record shipment of doses.
The move came weeks earlier than expected, with the state easily beating Biden’s May goal of opening shots up to everyone. Edwards’ administration expects a record nearly 150,000 doses of the three authorized vaccines next week, including more than 26,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine.
“This is a little bit of a surprise to get here as soon as we did," Edwards said. The expanded eligibility starts Monday.
“Come Monday, nobody needs to ask the question whether they're eligible. They just need to know their age. If they’re 16 and older they’re eligible.”
The expansion also comes after Louisiana has fallen to 40th in the country in the share of its population that has received at least one shot, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. About 23.5% of Louisiana’s residents have received at least one shot, compared to nearly 26% of Americans.
Until recently, Louisiana was in the middle of the pack in its uptake rate.
The falling ranking has raised concerns that hesitancy about getting vaccinated is starting to hamper Louisiana’s effort to quickly immunize an overwhelming majority of its residents.
“I think there is some concern that we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit. And a lot of that was in the older age groups who had a really strong rationale for why they wanted to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Susan Hassig, an associate professor of epidemiology at Tulane University.
Hassig said it appears there is lagging demand for vaccines in some parts of the state. Even with the state expanding vaccines to everyone, she said officials will still have their work cut out for them to reach people. That will have to include things like mobile vaccine sites to get out into communities where few people are seeking the shots, she said.
"It’s not gonna be 'here are the vaccines, come get your shot' as an approach anymore," Hassig said. "You’re going to have to meet people where they are."
The state is embarking on such an effort, sending people into far-flung parts of the state to knock on doors, educate people and sign them up for shots. The first wave of pilot programs is launching next week in nine underserved parishes across the state.
Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer, said officials are using detailed vaccination data by census tract to target parts of the state where uptake is low, data the Health Department will put on the public dashboard Thursday.
In New Orleans, the first pilot program will launch in the 70127 ZIP code, in New Orleans East. In Baton Rouge, the 70807 ZIP code encompassing much of Scotlandville and Southern University will get the resources. In Acadiana, the 70582 ZIP code in St. Martin Parish will get a pilot program.
Edwards had already given the vast majority of Louisianans access to the COVID vaccine this week, extending eligibility to more than two dozen types of essential workers. Previously, people aged 16 and up with a long list of health conditions, including a generous threshold for being overweight, were able to get the shots, along with elderly people and others.
The decision to expand eligibility comes after the White House informed governors across the country that they will receive more doses in the coming week. Arizona, Texas and Georgia all announced this week they would open up the shots to everyone.
The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been authorized only for adults, while Pfizer's vaccine has been cleared by regulators for people 16 and up.
Louisiana's COVID trends have improved as a large share of the elderly population has gotten vaccinated. Hospitalizations were at 413 as of Wednesday's report, which is up from the previous day but far lower than any previous dip since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations in early January surpassed 2,000.
At the same time, Kanter said he’s concerned about parts of the state, specifically southwest Louisiana, that are seeing upticks in hospitalizations. He said the state is in a “race against time” and against the so-called U.K. variant of COVID, which is more transmissible and virulent than the more common strain that has circulated for more than a year.
In addition to the nearly 150,000 shots from the feds, Louisiana will also “claw back” about 32,000 doses that went unused by nursing homes across the state as part of a federal program, Kanter said.
Kanter said he’s still encouraged that vaccine hesitancy appears to be waning as more people see their friends and family get inoculated. In focus groups, he said people rarely say they’re never going to get vaccinated, only that they “don’t know,” he said, which gives the Health Department the opportunity to persuade them.
A year ago this week, Edwards implemented a stay-at-home order that lasted until May 15 as the virus rampaged through New Orleans and the surrounding areas.
On Wednesday, he noted he has asked residents for more than a year to “do their part” to limit the spread of the virus. Now that means getting vaccinated, he said.
“Don’t sit back with the calculation that ‘I’m going to let other people get vaccinated until we reach herd immunity,’” Edwards said. “If enough people take that approach, we’re never going to get there.”