State and federal officials Wednesday said Louisiana could get an initial batch of 40,000 doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine later this month as the state embarks on a months-long effort to end the pandemic, starting with vaccinating hospital workers and nursing home residents and staff in December and early January.
Gov. John Bel Edwards cautioned it is still too early to know exactly how many doses of the vaccine will come to Louisiana in the coming weeks, and top Health Department officials said they were still awaiting more detailed guidance on which long-term care residents and staff should be prioritized.
But the first tranche of vaccinations, set to take place shortly after Pfizer’s vaccine and another produced by Moderna receive emergency approval from the feds, is coming into sharper focus. Edwards and Admiral Brett Giroir, a senior official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who joined the governor Wednesday for a press conference, said Louisiana should be in good shape to handle the cold storage and staffing necessary to deploy the vaccine to all who want it by late spring or early summer.
Edwards said Louisiana is set to get 1.46% of the available vaccines in the first batch. That is based on a pro-rata share of each state’s population over 18.
As of Wednesday, Edwards said the state expected to get 40,000 doses of Pfizer’s in the first week, followed by another 40,000 the following week, most of which will go to hospitals who can accommodate the extremely cold temperatures needed to store them. Those will largely go to vaccinate frontline workers at hospitals, including nurses, doctors, cafeteria workers and janitors who work with or near COVID-19 patients. However, Dr. Joe Kanter, Louisiana’s top coronavirus response official, said not all health workers will receive the vaccine immediately, only those working on the front lines of the pandemic are expected to be immunized before the end of the year.
Shortly thereafter, an unspecified number of doses of Moderna’s vaccine will be distributed to nursing homes, most of which will use CVS pharmacy workers to vaccinate residents and staff. Moderna’s vaccine is likely a week behind Pfizer’s in the approval process, Giroir said.
In all, Giroir said about 20 million Americans will be vaccinated in this calendar year. It will be May or June before most people have access to the vaccine, he added. The first batch will send 6.5 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine across the country, he said.
“Six point five million divided by the population is not much,” Giroir said. “It’s a great start...we’ll sequentially go after that.”
Louisiana officials likely won’t have to alter their original plan for the first batch of the vaccines to match federal recommendations unveiled this week that advised states to prioritize not only hospital workers but also residents and staff of long-term care facilities like nursing homes. Kanter said the state was already planning to include both categories in the first priority group.
Beyond that, much is unclear. Edwards said he can’t say when state prisoners will have access to the vaccine. Giroir noted there may be “a lot of controversy” surrounding who gets access to vaccines after the first batch. For instance, an argument can be made for front-line workers, he said, but if hospitals are full, leaders may want to prioritize people with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to severe illness from COVID-19.
Girior said it’s too early to say if Louisiana’s high rates of comorbidities could slow down the vaccine availability for the rest of the population. Currently, people with certain diseases are prioritized for the vaccine.
“We’re working through that,” Edwards said of how highly prisoners will be prioritized. “I cannot give you the sequence, the priority of every single group in Louisiana.”
“The critical part is how we administer those vaccines early on,” Edwards said. “It is important we have the national guard available” to vaccinate people. National Guard troops have deployed 280,000 of the 3.6 million COVID-19 tests given in Louisiana to date, he added.
Kanter said the numbers of doses that will be available initially could change in the coming weeks. But he said the federal government did not advise the state to save half of the initial batch of vaccines – both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s require two doses taken weeks apart – and instead indicated more would be on the way to fulfill the required second doses.
Before delivering the update with Edwards in Baton Rouge Wednesday, Girior, a native of Marrero, visited with employees at LaPharmacy, who handle testing. Girioir is the top COVID-19 testing official for the Trump administration.
Giroir estimates the vaccine rollout will be smoother than the testing process, which at times has been unproductive due to nationwide shortages and long turnaround times.
“We’ve got all the needles, we’ve got all the alcohol swabs, we’ve got all the syringes. We’ve got the world’s supply of dry ice. We know where every -80 degree freezer is, [all the] liquid nitrogen. That has all been planned out,” said Giroir, who noted that the government has been planning mass vaccination efforts for 30 years and distributed 180 million flu vaccines this year.
Some states, Giroir said, are requesting help with one of the most precious resources: staff to inject the vaccine and track patients when they need to come in for the second required dose, which must be given exactly 21 or 28 days later, depending on the vaccine. He hopes that pharmacists like Stacey Paul LaBorde, who runs LaPharmacy with his wife Robin, will be able to step in.
Giroir said the feds have enabled all pharmacy workers – including technicians and interns – to deploy COVID-19 vaccines to help ease the bottleneck.
While the vaccines are the “light at the end of the tunnel,” Giroir also pleaded with people to follow Edwards’ restrictions, including wearing masks, avoiding crowded indoor spaces and physically distancing. Louisiana’s hospitalizations more than doubled in November and officials here worry the Thanksgiving holiday could overwhelm hospitals if a surge in new patients show up at hospitals in the coming days and weeks.
“You are taking the right steps right now because we’re at a very dangerous and critical point in the pandemic,” Giroir said. “You need to wear a mask when you’re in public.”