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Colleen Landreneau, 89, right, gets one of the first COVID-19 vaccine administered to nursing home residents at Our Lady of the Lake”s Ollie Steele Burden Manor from pharmacist Vicki Stokes, left, a member of the morning's clinic visit team from Walgreen's, Monday, January 4, 2021. After getting their first dose of the Moderna vaccine; residents and staff will get the follow-up dose on February 1, when residents who chose not to get it Monday can opt to get their first dose.

During the first nine months of the pandemic, before vaccines became widely available, COVID-19 exacted a brutal toll on Louisiana's seniors.

By mid-December, more than 6,500 in Louisiana had died from the coronavirus disease, with 86% of those victims age 60 or older. 

Since then, Louisiana's oldest residents have enthusiastically rolled up their sleeves for the vaccines at rates far surpassing all other age groups. 

According to a forthcoming report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, those inoculations likely saved hundreds of Louisiana's most vulnerable lives.

Researchers estimate that during the five-month period ending in May 2021, vaccinations protected around 600 Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older in Louisiana from succumbing to COVID. 

The analysis compared trends in weekly COVID hospitalizations and deaths with vaccination rates. It found that for every 10% bump in inoculations among Medicare beneficiaries in a given parish, the number of deaths there fell by 11-12%. 

Nationwide, the mass vaccination campaign may have helped save the lives of some 39,000 seniors from COVID, according to researchers with HHS's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. 

The researchers also linked vaccinations with a nationwide reduction of 265,000 COVID infections and 107,000 hospitalizations among Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older. 

Louisiana's elderly were among the first in line to receive the life-saving vaccines when the state received its first shipment of doses back in December. In the early months of the pandemic, the state regularly reported more than 100 deaths per week in its nursing homes. 

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But by July 2021, about 83% of Louisiana's long-term care residents were fully vaccinated, and deaths from COVID had plunged to near zero. Those deaths inched upward during the fourth surge of the pandemic as infections among unvaccinated staff rose sharply. 

At the end of August, President Joe Biden announced that in order to receive funding from Medicare and Medicaid, nursing homes would have to require their staff to get vaccinated. 

Researchers linked the early uptick in inoculations from January to May to a reduction of 5,600 deaths among nursing home Medicare beneficiaries nationwide. 

Louisiana long lagged the nation in its vaccination rate, but its inoculation campaign got a boost over the last few months as the delta variant of COVID flooded hospitals with mostly unvaccinated patients. 

Its vaccination rate remains in the bottom 10 of states nationwide, with just over 45% of Louisiana residents having completed their vaccination series, according to state Health Department data. 

But the vaccination rate is much higher among Louisiana's elderly population. Nearly 90% of residents age 70 and older are vaccinated, and 78% of those between 60 and 69 have received the jab. 

Health officials credit those vaccination rates with protecting the state's vulnerable elderly population from the worst of the delta variant. Fewer than 6% of the deaths in each of the first three waves were people under 50. In the fourth wave, deaths skewed much younger, with more than 15% of COVID fatalities among people under 50.

Booster shots are now available for certain residents who are six months out from receiving the two-dose Pfizer regiment. That includes residents age 65 and older and others vulnerable because of underlying health problems or where they work and live.

Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this report. 

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