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Governor John Bel Edwards speaks to students who recently received a shot of the vaccine during a visit to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's Covid-19 testing and vaccine distribution center on Thursday, August 19, 2021, at Burke Hawthorne Hall.

Like the dog that finally caught the car, Louisiana officials are faced with the “now what?” question.

Administration and education officials, as well as the vaccination-hesitant, had all banked on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration giving full approval of a COVID-19 vaccine to allow government more pandemic response flexibility and boost Louisiana’s inoculation rates higher than 40%.

And true, public colleges and universities jumped to lay out plans that require their 213,000 students get vaccinated or opt out and submit to regular testing.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and his top aides are saying that the 40,000-some state workers will soon have to do something similar. But that plan hasn’t been officially announced yet and probably won’t be until Hurricane Ida has passed.

What happens to the roughly 700,000 public kindergarten through 12th grade students also is up in the air.

Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley has refused comment. The stance of the state Department of Education is that the next step for mandating the vaccine is up to the Louisiana Department of Health to add COVID-19 to the list of required vaccinations, which includes measles and other diseases, for students to attend public school.

That’ll take some time. The health department hasn’t drafted the rules yet. When it does, the rulemaking process allows time for public comment before the Legislature weighs in. (Parents and guardians can get a written statement from a doctor or sign a written “dissent” and be exempted from the required inoculations.)

At least part of the reason for the slow walk is the raucous opposition to Edwards’ order to mask indoors, including most students. The governor wants to mitigate a surge of COVID-19 infections that has led to hospitalizations that have filled beds and to deaths that have hit the highest levels ever.

One example of the messy politics is the recent Board of Elementary and Secondary Education hearing that got so out of control, the members that set state school policy abruptly adjourned and left the building.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, on Monday asked legislators to press BESE to reconvene the hearing. “This is an issue that is very important to a large number of parents and needs to be discussed,” he said.

BESE refused.

Louisiana is not the only place facing intense opposition. GOP-dominated Texas and Florida, for instance, have ordered locals not to impose mask and vaccination mandates. Republican lawmakers in Ohio and Pennsylvania have passed legislation that curtails their governors’ power to react to the pandemic.

Who are the opponents?

Polling in June by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a San Francisco-based health care policy research group, shows that 49% of the nation’s unvaccinated would get the shot once the vaccines got full authorization, as happened Monday for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 for those 16 years and older. Black and Hispanic people who haven’t been inoculated voiced concern about missing work and didn’t really know where or how to get the shot, which could be easily addressed.

A recently released Public Religion Research Institute survey found 64% of Republican respondents would get vaccinated. About 79% of the GOP most likely to get vaccinated reject QAnon conspiracy theories — such as, that politicians and finance officials are rings of pedophiles — and get their news from mainstream media rather than social media.

The largest subset of the “no way, no how” crowd is White evangelical Protestants, according to the PRRI survey. Four out of five white evangelicals self-identify as Republicans.

Evangelicals, or at least 84% of them, believe that God controls whatever happens and that God punishes nations for the sins of some of its citizens. About 44% of White evangelicals believe God would protect them.

Central pastor Tony Spell was a leader in disrupting the meeting that led BESE to quit before considering whether Gov. Edwards or local school districts had the power to order students to wear masks in the classroom.

In an April sermon, Spell told his Life Tabernacle Church congregants: “I'll just tell you today, if being anti-mask and anti-vaccine is anti-government, then I'm proud to be anti-government.” He argued, incorrectly, that COVID-19 victims have a 99.6% survival rate. “Why do you want somebody to contaminate your bloodstream with something that may or may not hurt you?" he added.

This is the dynamic slowing the governor’s pandemic response even after a COVID-19 vaccine has been fully approved.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.