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Amid A Potential Third Wave Of COVID-19 In Louisiana, State Provides A Plan For Vaccine Distribution

(Courtresy of Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM/CDC)

As the country battles a third wave of COVID-19 cases, Louisiana has managed to keep its number of new infections relatively low. But with cases on the rise in neighboring Texas and Mississippi and in the northwestern corner of the state, Assistant Secretary of Public Health Dr. Joseph Kanter is worried that there could be another spike.

“If our neighbors are having big increases, I’m reluctant to think that we can hold the line for very long,” Kanter said. “I see the storm clouds forming.”

On Friday the Department of Health reported that Louisiana saw four out of five days of consecutive increases of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

If the third wave of the virus floods into Louisiana, the flu season could place further strain on health care facilities.

“We do not know what would happen if someone got the flu and coronavirus in one year,” Department of Health and Hospitals Immunization Director Dr. Frank Welch said. “We do know that both of those things can cause severe damage to your lungs [and] coronavirus to your arteries. I don’t want to test that theory in any given person.”

It’s amid the threat of the flu season colliding with a potential rise in COVID-19 infections that health officials are gearing up to receive a vaccine to fight the virus that has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the United States and more than 5,800 in the state.

On Oct. 16, state health officials throughout the country submitted their playbooks for how vaccines will be distributed once the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration approve one or more drugs for widespread use.

Welch said the playbook deals more with administrative tasks – transportation of the vaccine throughout the state, shipping protocol, etc. — and that what people really want to know is who’s getting the vaccine first and when.

That plan is organized by priority groups, and those groups have sub-categories, Welch explained.

“Meaning, a nurse isn’t just a nurse. We want to know [are they] a nurse who works in an emergency room on the front line vs. a nurse who may work in administration or a retired nurse or someone who works in an OBGYN clinic,” Welch said, adding that first responders more likely to come into contact with the virus will receive the vaccine first. “Then as we get more vaccine, we’ll be able to start expanding out until hopefully every citizen in Louisiana is able to be offered a COVID-19 vaccine.”

As cases rise in Shreveport and Bossier, Welch said the department will distribute vaccines based on which parishes are most in need. “If we see a place that has what we feel [is] a high level of community transmission, if there needs to be prioritization within priority groups, we’re going to focus on those parishes first.”

The department has placed essential workers in those priority groups as well. A recent study linked the high rate of infection with and death from COVID-19 in Black and Latinx communities to jobs that lead to more exposure to the virus. Welch, who referenced the governor’s Health Equity Task Force, is hoping that by basing the vaccination plan on occupation, Black and Latinx Louisianans will be vaccinated.

“Within our breakdown, front line workers who are more likely to be exposed to coronavirus will be in higher priority than other people, meaning grocery store workers and bank tellers and Uber drivers.” Welch said. “The bank teller needs to go before the bank administrator who’s just sitting in an office all day.”

Welch said it’s likely that once a vaccine is approved, the federal government will distribute it based on each state and territory’s population, meaning that Louisiana would receive roughly 2.5 percent of whatever supply is available at first. His department has drafted plans that accommodate for different levels of vaccine availability.

While the distribution plan is in place, many variables are still unknown, including which vaccine of the many drugs that are currently being tested will be made available. It is possible that more than one will eventually be approved. And if a vaccine is released in January 2021, as the federal government hopes, we will not know how long the vaccine prevents infection of COVID-19 beyond a few months. Furthermore, in vaccines that require two shots – a primer and a booster shot – like the one that Pfizer is developing, Welch said we still don’t know when after the second shot is administered someone can be considered immune.

Another unknown is how long we will need to administer a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Given the behavior of coronaviruses in the past, this will probably settle down at some point to be part of the common cold,” Welch explained. “I do believe we’ll probably have to have yearly coronavirus vaccination boosters administered every year, at least for a little while.”

Welch said he favors one-shot vaccines and vaccines with adjuvants, which help to produce a stronger immune response, but he’s waiting to see what the studies reveal.

“I’m going to favor a vaccine that gives stronger immunity, and then over time that gives long lasting immunity, and then my third criteria is going to be one that can be used for more than just a small subsegment of the population.”

In the meantime, Welch is urging all Louisianans over six months of age without an allergy or other contraindication that would prevent them from getting a flu vaccine to get the flu shot.

“It’s going to make it so that if someone does get seriously ill, the different diagnosis might be easier, that it’s coronavirus vs. the flu, given that they have similar symptoms,” he said.

Waiting for a vaccine to stop the spread of COVID-19 while more people around the world are diagnosed with the virus can be discouraging. Assistant Health Secretary Kanter pushed personal responsibility to wear masks and socially distance during the wait.

“Even though it doesn’t feel like anyone’s empowered in 2020, we’re really empowered.” he said.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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