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Dr. Joe Kanter, head of the state's coronavirus response at the La. Dept. of Health's Office of Public Health, speaks at Governor John Bel Edwards' press conference updating the state's COVID-19 response, Tuesday, January 12, 2021 at the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Edwards announced that the state is moving into another four weeks of Phase 2 coronavirus restrictions because of the virus' hold on the state.

The Biden administration has told Louisiana officials that shipments of the coronavirus vaccine won’t be increasing much for at least a month, the latest challenge to the state’s effort to ramp up vaccinations.

The revelation that shipments won’t be increasing — which has long been the promise made to states by federal officials — means Louisiana likely won’t be able to hold mass vaccination events anytime soon, Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a press conference Friday.

Vaccine shipments to the state this week and next are expected to remain flat at about 58,000 doses per week, with potentially only a 5% to 10% bump through most of February. Louisiana has received roughly flat shipments of vaccine doses for the past month, Edwards said, amid supply issues that are impacting distribution across the U.S.

“Everybody was working under the assumption that over time the manufacturing output would increase and allocations would increase as well,” Edwards said. “If you go back and look at representations that were made in November and December, we always believed there would be increasing allocations. That is going to happen at some point. That just isn’t happening yet. That presents some problems.”

Edwards said the pace of shipments won’t affect patients’ ability to receive second doses that are required for full protection.

The Trump administration for months said production of vaccines would swiftly increase after they were authorized. And shortly before Biden took office, top Trump administration health officials announced that they would no longer hold back second doses, a change in policy that suggested more doses would soon be on their way to states.

But even as states anticipated a surge in supply, they soon learned the federal government had already used up its stockpile.

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President Joe Biden has vowed a stronger response to the coronavirus pandemic, including a bolstered vaccination effort. He has set a goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, has directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up vaccination centers and is letting agencies use the Defense Production Act, which allows the government to procure supplies from private industry during times of emergency.

But ramping up vaccine supplies will still take time, and the flat shipments will slow Louisiana’s move through the priority groups that determine who is eligible for a vaccine. Without a big jump in doses, it will likewise limit the need to use planned vaccination sites to get doses to larger swaths of the public and bring the state closer to herd immunity.

It’s not clear how big of a setback this is to the state’s plans. Edwards has hesitated to reveal timelines for when different groups might have access to the vaccine, citing uncertainty around supply.

About 272,000 people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Louisiana, according to the latest state data. That represents less than a third of the roughly 900,000 people who are currently eligible to receive the vaccine, said Dr. Joe Kanter, state health officer at the Louisiana Department of Health, though it is not known how many of those people want the vaccine.

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He said the state is coordinating with providers to find out when demand starts to dip, at which point the state will expand the priority group to the next tier, which includes a list of essential workers. It is not clear what trigger the state intends to use, though Edwards has suggested when appointment uptake dips to 80%, the state may expand eligibility. Currently, people 70 and older and many health workers, as well as people who live or work in long-term care facilities like nursing homes, are eligible for vaccinations.

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Kanter also said the announcement by the Trump administration was part of the reason Ochsner Health, Louisiana’s largest health institution, overestimated the supply it believed would be coming into the state.

Ochsner had scheduled more than 100,000 vaccine appointments for the coming weeks, but last week said it would have to postpone thousands of them after the system didn’t receive any vaccine in its regular shipment. The state later diverted a relatively small number of doses to the system to help fill the gap. Ochsner officials last week said they and the state were under the impression more doses would be coming from the feds than actually arrived.

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Edwards said governors across the U.S. are “all asking for the same thing. We want more vaccine as soon as we can possibly get it.”

He also said state leaders want more lead time in between shipments. Currently, the feds give states an estimate of how many doses they’ll get the following week on Tuesday. On Thursday, the federal government finalizes the number, and the state must place its orders for shipments to providers.

Louisiana had a slow start to the vaccine effort in December, when the state was only allowing vaccinations for front-line health workers and people who live and work in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, which are handled by a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens.

Since then, the state has picked up the pace. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Louisiana ranks 11th among states and the District of Columbia in the number of doses administered per capita.

The delays in getting more vaccines aren’t unique to Louisiana. In Alabama, officials said they’re receiving roughly half as many vaccine doses as they were expecting based on federal plans announced last year. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown postponed shots for elderly people after learning the state’s vaccine shipments won’t be increased recently.

Edwards said his administration is busy reviewing the executive actions taken by the Biden administration, which include a waiver of states’ cost share for COVID expenses that could save Louisiana millions.

“It’s been a little bit slower, obviously, than we would like,” Edwards said of the vaccine shipments.

“We’re anxiously awaiting increasing allocations.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com.