An increase in cases of the more transmissible U.K. coronavirus variant in southwest Louisiana has added urgency to vaccination efforts there. But with the region reeling from a string of destructive natural disasters, health officials are struggling to get shots in arms.
Nearly seven months after Hurricane Laura ravaged Lake Charles and surrounding parishes, thousands of families are still without homes and many are preoccupied with the grueling tasks that come with recovery: haggling with insurance companies, hiring contractors and picking up debris.
"It's very hard for people to prioritize their health and get a vaccine when they don't have a roof over their head or food on the table," said Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh, the region's public health coordinator. "It's low on the hierarchy of needs."
The Louisiana Department of Health has announced two upcoming locations to received the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Acadiana.
The region — which includes Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis parishes — was further hobbled in its inoculation efforts in February, when an icy storm knocked out power and closed roads, pausing distribution efforts and adding one more layer of stress to an already weary population.
As of Wednesday evening, the southwest region had completed 23,531 vaccine series. The five-parish region it covers had the lowest percentage of its population fully vaccinated in the state at 7.82% — nearly half the rate in the New Orleans region, which tops the list at 13.48%, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health.
Dr. Cavanaugh cautioned against relying on that data, noting that untold thousands of residents have been displaced from the region in recent months, making the numbers benchmarked to an outdated population count.
Still, there's no doubt that the region is facing added challenges in getting shots in arms. That's most apparent, officials said, in how much longer it takes providers to fill up their appointments.
"It's not like other regions, where there's a race to get a spot," said Lance Armentor, vice president at Oschner CHRISTUS Health Center in Lake Charles. "It's kind of like a slow trickle effect."
To encourage sign-ups, Dr. Cavanaugh said providers are focusing on the "little things" they can do to reduce barriers. They've set-up phone lines so patients who have yet to have their internet restored can still make appointments. At drive-thru events, people without cars or appointments aren't turned away. And providers are flexing hours to accommodate different working schedules.
“We have to make it easy and simple for them to get the vaccine,” Armentor said. “The best compliment I got is, ‘Y’all run y’all’s clinic like a Chick-fil-a drive-thru’.”
A study last summer from the Louisiana Public Health Institute found that 43% of residents living in the southwest region would get a vaccine if it became available — the lowest interest recorded in the state. The survey was conducted prior to the approval of any vaccine, and Dr. Cavanaugh said hesitancy in the region is no more pronounced than what officials are seeing elsewhere.
Adding to the urgency to roll-out vaccinations is the concentration of confirmed cases of the United Kingdom variant in the region, a fact that Gov. John Bel Edwards highlighted on his Wednesday radio show. Seven cases of the strain have been identified there, with 50 more suspected and awaiting confirmation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to state health department data.
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"We feel like we're in a race to get as many people vaccinated as soon as we can to prevent any future wave of COVID," Dr. Cavanaugh said. "Another big spike is the last thing we need when we're already trying to recover."
As they work to inoculate the public, health officials in the region are facing their own struggles in recovering. The roof on Dr. Cavanaugh's house was destroyed by Hurricane Laura. It was soon replaced, but less than two months later, Hurricane Delta damaged it again.
Oschner Christus' Armentor said his insurance claim for damage to his home was approved three weeks ago, allowing him to finally get to work on repairs. There are three other families who lost their homes living on his property.
The region's public health building was also damaged, cutting off access to nearly half of its working space. The storage facility on campus that holds personal protective gear and some paperwork caved in and boxes of masks and gloves are now stacked ceiling high in a vacant conference room.
“It’s the wild, wild west,” Dr. Cavanaugh said of their new set-up.
In the face of so many challenges, some providers have found a way to keep vaccines flowing. South Cameron Memorial Hospital was ravaged by Hurricane Laura and is now largely unusable, but a determined group of health care workers are still giving out shots under a makeshift tent clinic.
And Boudreaux's New Drug Store in Lake Charles is now vaccinating up to 1,200 people a week, a bright spot its owner Jesse Vidrine said is a testament to the connection that small, locally owned pharmacies have with the people they serve.
“We’re a community pharmacy that’s focused on caring for patients rather than treating patients like cattle, getting them in and out as fast as possible,” Vidrine said.