BATON ROUGE, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday announced plans to expand the groups prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine beginning next week, including people over the age of 70 and certain healthcare workers.
In his final media briefing of the year on Louisiana’s response to COVID-19, Edwards said a network of about 100 pharmacies across the state will start to receive limited doses of the Moderna vaccine next week, allowing vaccinations to begin for the next priority group.
“Obviously, this is great news because we really need to get as many Louisianans vaccinated as quickly as possible because that is the way that we ultimately put this pandemic behind us.”
Edwards said the state has been told to expect 28,275 doses of Pfizer vaccine and 27,400 of the Moderna vaccine. Seniors 70 and older and certain health care workers will be able to make an appointment at one of the participating pharmacies to get the first of the two-shot vaccine. Edwards said there are nearly 500,000 people aged 70 and older in the state and stressed that the process will take time.
“Not everyone who is in these priority groups is going to be able to get a vaccine next week. I think the numbers kind of speak for themselves in that regard, but we do have the opportunity to get started and that’s what we’re going to do next week.”
Appointments will be required, as the state does not want people to be lined up for hours as has happened in other states, and because pharmacies will have to carefully manage the doses due to refrigeration and handling requirements.
Information about which pharmacies will be administering the vaccine for the next phase will be posted on the Louisiana Department of Health website Monday. The governor said officials are working to make sure that the vaccine is being distributed equitably so underserved communities aren’t left out.
Phase 1B, Tier 1, will also include those with end-stage renal disease personnel and clients as well as home health care agency patients and personnel. The decision to lower the eligible age in Louisiana to 70 is a slight departure from CDC recommendations that limit initial priority to those 75 and older, which Edwards said is driven by state data showing who is most at highest risk for severe cases, who is ending up in the hospital, and who is most likely to die.
“As best we can, early on, we want to preserve hospital capacity, and we want to save lives.”
About 640,000 people across the state fall into those categories.
The governor said more than 45,000 vaccinations have been administered so far to hospital workers, EMS, nursing home staff and residents, and others in the first phase and that distribution to Phase 1A will continue. That group includes approximately 249,000 people across that state.
Edwards also said no one in the state has had a significant adverse reaction to any of the initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccines. He also noted that both of the vaccines currently being distributed require two shots and that those who receive it are not considered vaccinated until they receive the second dose.
Those who will be included in Phase 1B Tier 2 will include teachers, grocery store workers, other essential workers that keep the state functioning. Edwards said it’s not known yet exactly when people in this group will be eligible, but that it is important to let people know ahead of time who is next in line.
Edwards made the announcement on New Year’s Eve as he implored residents eager to celebrate and put the trying year behind them to follow safety guidelines such as wearing masks, washing hands and socially distancing.
The Louisiana Department of Health reported 4,051 new COVID-19 cases statewide and 40 more deaths Thursday, bringing the cumulative number of confirmed and probable cases reported in the state to 315,275 and deaths to 7,488 as hospitalizations statewide hit yet another a new eight-month high.
It is hospitalizations that Edwards continues to highlight as the most alarming, and it is what he said Thursday remains a critical factor in decisions about whether additional restrictions will need to be ordered.
“As I’ve said from the very beginning, we’re going to make sure that we don’t lose capacity in our hospitals to render life-saving care to COVID and non-COVID patients alike, and if it becomes necessary to impose more restrictions in order to achieve that, then we’re gonna do it. We’re not at that point right now. It is pretty easy to see that if we stay on the current trajectory that we will get there.”
The governor said he and his team will meet with medical directors and hospital CEOs around the state next week, as they do regularly, and that the level of restrictions are something they are evaluating.
“It’s certainly on the table. Whether we have to do it or not is up to the people of Louisiana, collectively. Hopefully, they will embrace these measures that are necessary in order to prevent that from happening. There’s not a decision I’ve made involving COVID that was a pleasant, easy decision, but its one that I’m prepared to make if it becomes necessary.”
The latest update comes one day after the LDH reported 6,754 new COVID-19 cases statewide, the highest number of daily cases reported to date in the state that did not include a backlog.
“This is a really big number, there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Edwards said Thursday morning.
Both Edwards and LDH Interim Assistant Public Health Secretary Dr. Joseph Kanter said the state is monitoring for signs that a new variant of the novel coronavirus has arrived in Louisiana. The new straign first emerged in the UK a few weeks ago and has now shown up in Colorado and California, but so far, Kanter says nothing has shown up in samplings sent to the CDC for surveillance on different strains. Edwards said the samplings sent to the CDC will double in the new year.
Thursday’s briefing also comes two days after the death of Congressman-elect Luke Letlow from complications of COVID-19, making him the first Congress member or member-elect to die from the coronavirus. Other sitting members have tested positive and recovered.
Edwards has announced he will order flags to be flown at half-staff on the day of Letlow’s funeral.
New Orleans on Wednesday canceled New Year’s fireworks and told its bars and breweries that state pandemic restrictions mean they must close indoor seating as the positivity rate in the parish remained above 5% for a second week.
“Just as with other holidays this year, we’ve had to significantly adjust what New Year’s celebrations will look like in New Orleans,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a news release. “That means no large parties, no riverfront fireworks, and no spectators at the fleur-de-lis drop. Please stay at home and ring in the New Year safely with the members of your immediate household.”
Bars, breweries and adult entertainment can keep outdoor seating for up to 50 socially distanced people and drive-thru, takeout and curbside pickup.
According to Department of Health spokesman Sean Ellis, only three parishes — Winn, East Feliciana and East Carroll — currently meet the state requirement for indoor seating at such businesses.
Cantrell said New Orleans will still host the televised Central Time Zone “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” but no in-person viewing will be allowed for its musical performances and the descent of a giant fleur de lis at the Jax Brewery shopping mall in the French Quarter. New Orleans police will keep vehicles and pedestrians out of the area and will keep crowds from forming, the mayor said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.