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Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks during a briefing on Louisiana's response to COVID-19, accompanied by Admiral Brett Giroir, right, assistant secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dec. 2 at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

Gov. John Bel Edwards pledged Tuesday the state would administer all 79,000 doses of the first batch of vaccines in Louisiana within 48 hours of receiving them, as he expressed confidence in the state’s ability to undertake the mass immunization effort starting this month.

Edwards, who joined governors from Tennessee, Florida and Texas at the White House for a vaccine summit, said he expects 39,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine as soon as this week, depending on federal approval, followed by another 40,000 doses a week later.

“Within 48 hours of getting that second allocation we will have administered those vaccinations,” he said.

Edwards, the only Democrat on the panel, said he plans to send “strike teams” of National Guard troops into underserved communities – especially those with large numbers of minorities – to make sure the vaccine is distributed widely in the state. Black residents make up about a third of Louisiana’s population but 43% of COVID-19 deaths, according to state Health Department data.

The governor’s trip to the White House is one of several meetings the Democrat has had with top Trump administration officials. Last week, Admiral Brett Giroir, the Trump administration’s testing czar, traveled to Louisiana to brief reporters on the vaccine and applaud the governor’s coronavirus restrictions, which Louisiana Republicans have widely criticized.

Edwards recently ramped up restrictions as Louisiana faces a deadly third wave of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Landry moved to appeal a state court ruling that declared unconstitutional a petition used by House Republican lawmakers to cancel all virus restrictions. Landry is asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to reconsider the decision by 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant, according to court filings. 

Louisiana is following federal recommendations to administer the first batch of vaccines, first from Pfizer and then Moderna, to hospital workers on the front lines of the pandemic and residents and staff of long-term care facilities like nursing homes.

The Louisiana Department of Health said 73,000 people who live or work in long-term care facilities is included in the first phase of the vaccine rollout, which is expected to stretch into January. That includes 25,000 nursing home residents, 30,000 nursing home staff and people in skilled nursing facilities, adult residential care facilities, state-run veterans homes and others.

Aly Neel, a spokeswoman for the agency, said it's unclear how many hospital workers will be included in the first phase. The first vaccines are expected to go to workers who are on the front lines of the pandemic, meaning those who work in areas where COVID-19 patients are present, though the exact definition will be left up to hospitals.

Edwards said the state’s vaccine collaborative has been working “non-stop” since June to prepare for the vaccine rollout. LSU has run two “tabletop” exercises to expose gaps in the state’s plan, the governor said, and the state has run distribution exercises to prepare hospitals for what to expect. The state has also struck a deal with Morris & Dickson, a north Louisiana pharmaceutical distributor, to help allocate the vaccines.

Pfizer’s vaccine requires extremely cold temperatures, and Louisiana plans to send those doses to hospitals, which have the ability to store vaccines in super cold freezers. Moderna’s vaccine is expected to largely go to long-term care facilities.

“States, we’ve been in the business of doing this a long time too. It’s not anything new. It’s just at a scale we don’t typically have to do it at,” Edwards said. “We want to promote the confidence to the people of Louisiana that this is going to be a safe and effective vaccination that they’re going to want to have.”

Edwards’ comments about the speed of immunizations came in response to a query about how long it will take the governors to get 100,000 people vaccinated. Each of the other governors – Greg Abbott of Texas, Ron DeSantis of Florida and Bill Lee of Tennessee – said they could vaccinate 100,000 people within 24 to 48 hours. Edwards said assuming the feds are on track to approve and get Louisiana’s first 79,000 doses to the state, they would be used within two days.

Louisiana’s plan for distributing the vaccine gives first priority to hospital workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities, followed by most other medical personnel, first responders, public transit workers, pharmacists, food processing workers and people 65 and older with health conditions.

Phase 2 includes several other categories, including food distributors, K-12 school and day care personnel, some government workers, prisoners, postal workers and others, before the general public is set to have access in May or June. Edwards has said the priorities could still change and it’s not yet set in stone, and health officials say specific plans are still in flux.

The White House event came as news outlets reported the Trump administration months ago opted not to lock in the chance to buy millions of additional doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, which could delay the delivery of more doses in America until Pfizer fulfills contracts in other countries.

Pfizer’s vaccine is expected to win emergency approval from a federal panel as soon as this week.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com