With vaccinations lagging three weeks into the state’s effort, Louisiana’s health agency this week directed hospitals to start inoculating the elderly and an expanded group of health care workers as pharmacies around the state start doling out small numbers of doses.

The state as of Tuesday had only administered 56,452 doses of the vaccine, after being allotted more than 210,000 doses in recent weeks. About 56,000 of the doses went to a federal program through Walgreens and CVS to immunize residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. The rest went to hospitals and other providers.

Allowing the elderly to access the vaccine appears to be kickstarting the state’s vaccination program, after thousands of health workers at the state’s major hospital systems have declined to take advantage of the vaccine so far.

Still, there are a host of hurdles. People aged 70 and older, who are now eligible for vaccinations, flooded phone lines at pharmacies and hospitals this week, vying for a limited number of doses. Most appeared to land on waitlists or struck out. The state only received 10,500 doses for pharmacies, equaling about 100 each at the 107 locations selected. Hospitals have an unknown number of doses for use on the elderly because shots for health workers are ongoing as people slowly sign up.

Ochsner Medical Center and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, two of the state’s biggest health systems, are only offering vaccinations to people who are existing patients of their respective hospitals. Ochsner began the immunizations Monday to the elderly and other health workers in the state’s Phase 1B priority group, while Our Lady of the Lake has only started doling out vaccines to health workers in Phase 1B. OLOL said it intends to begin immunizing the elderly soon.

The Louisiana Department of Health directed hospitals to start vaccinating people in the first tier of Phase 1B if they have doses that exceed the number of workers who have signed up for shots in the first phase.

“Effective immediately, please begin to use any remaining current and future vaccine allotments that exceed your interested hospital staff to begin vaccinating” the elderly and a list of other health workers, including outpatient clinic staff, urgent care providers, home health providers and recipients and others, the agency said in a memo.

Christina Stephens, a spokesperson for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said “we are leaving it to hospitals to efficiently administer the vaccine doses they have. As more doses are available to the state, there will be expanded options for people to get the vaccine.”

After being allocated more than 210,000 doses in the first three weeks, Louisiana got 10,500 doses of Moderna’s vaccine to send to pharmacies this week. Aly Neel, a spokesperson for the Health Department, said the state doesn't keep track of how many of the 56,000 doses that went to the federal nursing home program have reached the state. 

Next week, the state expects 28,275 doses of Pfizer's vaccine and 27,500 doses of Moderna's vaccine, Neel said. 

Elderly people inundated hospitals and pharmacies with calls and requests for appointments after learning they were eligible. At New Orleans East Hospital, spokesperson Aziza Landrum said the response was “overwhelming,” and that the hospital has filled its appointment capacity.

That’s a turnaround from the first phase of the vaccination program, which began in mid-December and offered vaccines to hospital workers. New Orleans East Hospital has vaccinated about 105 of its 399 staff members, Landrum said, though the hospital is still offering vaccines to its workers. She said the hospital’s “main priority” is vaccinating staff, and they can get the vaccine at any time.

Dr. Robert Hart, chief medical officer at Ochsner Health System, said the system has vaccinated about half of its 26,000 employees. In all, the system has administered more than 16,000 doses, according to a spokesperson, including to Ochsner employees, community physicians, first responders and other health care providers across the state.

Hart said the numbers are not surprising when compared to national surveys, several of which have shown about 40% of people say they will get the vaccine, while another significant chunk say they will probably get it. For instance, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey in December found 41% of people will definitely get vaccinated, while 30% will probably get vaccinated.

“Actually when I’ve seen some of those surveys, I’m actually pretty pleased in our first run through we’re closer to 50%,” Hart said. “When we opened up to over 70, as we’ve done, it definitely changed the dynamics. We had a lot of interest yesterday. A lot of phone calls about it. People were signing up on my Ochsner, just as quickly as they could.”

Ochsner received another shipment of about 8,000 doses on Monday, Hart said. The system is limiting the vaccinations to elderly people who are already patients of Ochsner because it will be able to move through appointments more quickly. He said the system eventually hopes to expand its vaccination efforts to the public statewide when doses become available.

Scott Wester, president and CEO of Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge, said the system has administered about 7,000 vaccines, compared to 17,000 workers across the state. The system began vaccinating health workers newly eligible under Phase 1B last week, he added, and will soon roll it out to people 70 and older.

Wester said he believes the holidays tamped down enthusiasm for the vaccine among staff. Some people took time off or otherwise didn’t want to experience side effects during the holidays. He said every day more workers are scheduling appointments to get vaccinated.

The Lake will also only vaccinate people who are connected to the system’s physician groups, Wester said, and there are more than 50,000 such people who qualify.

“That’s a large cohort,” he said. “They’re already in our system, they’re already in our electronic health records.”

While a fraction of Our Lady of the Lake’s staff has taken advantage of the vaccine so far, Wester said he’s not yet concerned, and expects more to receive their shot in the coming weeks. He and Hart noted some employees have tested positive for COVID-19 recently and therefore were told to hold off on receiving the vaccination for the time being.

The number of doses administered in Louisiana compared to the number of residents puts it near the bottom of the list of states, according to the New York Times, using data from last week. According to the analysis, Louisiana outpaced only six other states for the share of population receiving a shot so far. The first batches of vaccines were divvied up by population.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com