To stave off a fourth, deadly surge in coronavirus cases by using up available vaccine doses as soon as possible, Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday dramatically expanded eligibility requirements to include individuals age 16 and older with underlying health conditions.

The new guidelines open the floodgates on eligibility, allowing shots for anyone in the age range who is overweight, a past or present smoker, or has one of nearly two dozen broadly defined health conditions: Asthma, cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, Down Syndrome, “heart conditions,” high blood pressure, obesity, sickle cell disease and diabetes, among others. The Pfizer shot is the only vaccine approved for those aged 16 or 17.

"We didn’t reinvent the wheel," Edwards said. "We took those conditions directly from the CDC." 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of underlying medical conditions that increases the risk of a COVID infection turning deadly.

Edwards said the vaccine is also now available for those who work in congregant settings, like prisons, shelters or group homes. 

The expansion comes as Louisiana enters a familiar — and perhaps foreboding — stage of the now year-long pandemic: hospitalizations, deaths and the rate of positive tests have all plateaued after declining from a post-holiday surge. Paired with rising case counts of the more transmissible variant of the virus from the United Kingdom, health officials worry another spike is lurking around the corner.

“We’ve stopped improving, and in every previous instance when that has happened there was another surge,” Edwards said. “We are literally in a race against transmission of the virus —  especially the new variants.”

Vaccine providers in recent days also reported “slack” in their available appointments, Edwards said, indicating that they were ready and willing to accommodate more people.

On Saturday morning, Ochsner Health had 700 appointments available for the afternoon at the Shrine on Airline. Two weeks earlier, 500 appointments at the Alario Center in Jefferson Parish were filled within five minutes.

“Our goal is not to have any vaccine sitting on the shelf any longer than is absolutely necessary,” Edwards said. “The more people who get vaccinated, and the faster this happens, the more likely we’ll return to normal.”

Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer, said it's particularly important to get needles in arms now so the state is in a better place when the more transmissible U.K. variant picks up steam. Kanter highlighted a promising report recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that the available vaccines were effective against the U.K. variant. Louisiana has 20 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant, with 74 others pending confirmation with the CDC, Kanter said. 

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As of Tuesday, 17.3% of Louisiana residents have gotten one vaccine dose, and 9.9% have completed the regiment. More people have been fully vaccinated now than have tested positive for COVID-19. The state expects its vaccine shipments to remain flat next week at around 100,000 doses. That doesn't include the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which isn't expected for shipment again until the end of the month. 

“It is very clear, as it has been for quite some time now, that the capacity of Louisiana to administer vaccine far exceeds the supply,” Kanter said.

News of the expansion came just as Broad Avenue Pharmacy in New Orleans finally caught up on their waitlist, with phones ringing off the hook Tuesday morning ahead of Edwards official announcement. At one point over the past three months, their waitlist was 500 people long. 

“With this new group, it’s pretty daunting because the requirements are very general and it’s a huge group of people,” said Chi Tran, the pharmacist at Broad Avenue, noting that some of the requirements remain vague. 

For example, cancer is listed as a qualifying disease, but it’s not clear if that means current or previous cancer, or whether someone who had skin cancer removed, but required no further treatment might qualify. 

“They haven’t really given specifics,” said Tran.

The announcement Tuesday also came exactly one year after Louisiana confirmed its first case of the coronavirus. To commemorate the pandemic’s deadly toll, staff from Edward’s office planted nearly 10,000 white flags – one for each life lost – in front of the State Capitol.

“Every one of those flags represents an empty seat in somebody’s home somewhere, and also, an empty place in many people’s hearts,” Edwards said. “Today, we will plant 11 more.”

Staff writer Emily Woodruff contributed to this report.

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